A year of smiles: Patient and surgeon defy inoperable pancreatic cancer diagnosis

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Mary Olson's story is featured in our Winter/Spring 2017 print addition of "A Healthier YOU" magazine.
Read Mary's full story below. 
Mary Olson

How do you measure a day? In minutes, seconds, hours? Mary Olson measures it in smiles. And, despite a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, Mary would tell you she has a lot to smile about.

She was diagnosed in April 2015, after experiencing several weeks of low back pain. As an active 59-year-old who hikes, bikes and loves the outdoors, Mary figured she was just overdoing it. When the pain didn’t go away, she visited her doctor near her home in suburban Minneapolis.

After a CT scan, the doctor told her she had stage IV inoperable pancreatic cancer. “I was shocked,” Mary says. A biopsy the next day confirmed the initial diagnosis.

Mary went into ‘perpetual motion’ and sought opinions from two well-respected healthcare systems close to home. “Both doctors told me the same thing – I had advanced inoperable cancer, and no doctor would touch it. I was told I had a few months to live, and the best they could do was make me comfortable.”

It was then that Mary remembered a former colleague’s story about his experience with a pancreatic tumor, and the complicated surgery performed by Malcolm Bilimoria, M.D., at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH). “I contacted his office and spoke with Stephanie Evans, R.N., the nurse navigator.”

During Mary’s first meeting with Dr. Bilimoria, he carefully reviewed the scans and notes and explained that she had two tumors – one wrapped around the celiac artery and another the size of a racquetball. But what Mary remembers best is that he told her that if chemotherapy and radiation could shrink the tumors enough, he could perform the surgery.

Mary underwent six months of chemotherapy and radiation close to home, while being carefully monitored by Dr. Bilimoria. “I was constantly on the phone with my nurse, Stephanie. She told me what to expect and constantly talked about the value of a positive attitude. Everything she told me to do made complete sense.”

On October 9, 2015, Mary and her husband, Doug, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a big party among family and friends. But they were celebrating much more than that. The day before, based on results of the most recent CT scan, Dr. Bilimoria walked into Mary’s exam room and asked, “Are you ready for surgery?”

Dr. Bilimoria performed Mary’s surgery on October 22, 2015. “My family was so afraid of losing me, but at NCH, the whole family was the patient,” she says. “NCH met the emotional needs of my family, and they were kept informed the entire time.”

Mary calls NCH the home of warm blankets. “When you are sick and scared, a warm blanket is a symbol of safety and comfort – like a hug. Well, I never had to ask for one. The staff knew what I needed before I did.”

It’s been more than a year since Mary’s surgery. In that time, she’s traveled, taken daily walks with her husband and spent countless hours with her children and her grandchildren.

“I am here today because I sought out Dr. Bilimoria and NCH,” she says. “I wake up every day with a grateful heart and a smile on my face. I love my life so much.”

  • Malcolm Bilimoria



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