In September of 2018, while standing atop the cliffs of Moher in Ireland, Ken Brown, a 69-year-old Highland Park lawyer, reflected on the pancreatic cancer diagnosis he received five years earlier.
"I was saying to my wife how fortunate I was to be able to do this," the avid hiker says. "Thinking of all the things that I've done and seen since then, I got a little emotional."
Despite low survival rates, Ken is thriving, and now provides emotional support to others diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Five-year survival rates vary from as low as one percent for advanced stage IV, to 14 percent for stage IA, according to the American Cancer Society.
Because Ken acted fast when he began to experience jaundice, dark-colored urine and itchiness, Malcolm Bilimoria, M.D., Surgical Oncologist at Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH) was able to discover a cancerous tumor and remove it by performing the Whipple procedure, a complex surgery that can take up to eight hours. Dr. Bilimoria routinely completes the Whipple in less than three hours and with fewer complications.
Before and after surgery, Ken underwent chemotherapy and every scan since recovery has been clean.
In January of 2019, he'll officially hit the five-year, cancer-free mark.
I'm excited for Ken to reach the five-year mark because it confirms that he is cured of his cancer," Dr. Bilimoria says. "This is a huge milestone that reflects all the hard work put in by Ken and all his doctors to get him to this point."
What's new in pancreatic cancer care?
There are several emerging technologies for pancreatic cancer patients at NCH, including the Nanoknife®, a minimally invasive cancer treatment that uses electrical currents to target and kill hard-to-reach tumors.
"The NanoKnife allows me to perform pancreas surgery on more advanced tumors," Dr. Bilimoria says. "We routinely see patients who were told by other surgeons that the tumor is too advanced for surgery and, with the help of the NanoKnife, we are able to remove the tumor with clear margins."
In addition to the NanoKnife Program, NCH recently launched a Robotic Pancreas Surgery Program which has already helped 20 patients.
"This allows certain patients with pancreatic tumors to have surgery with a minimally invasive approach and thereby lessen their pain and shorten their recovery time," Dr. Bilimoria says.
Pancreatic cancer awareness
Ken does all he can to spread the word about pancreatic cancer, symptoms and treatment. He often refers people to Dr. Bilimoria.
"If I can help someone to get through a day, a chemo treatment or to motivate them, I think that I have to do that," he says. "That's my obligation."
He spreads awareness about the early signs of pancreatic cancer, noting that "early detection is going to make a difference."
The greatest hike
A year ago, Ken and Dr. Bilimoria became the focus of public attention when the two of them, along with some other physicians and colleagues at NCH, decided to hike the highest peak in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro. Since then, Ken has hiked in New Zealand and Ireland and he says he'll continue to "live his dream" and encourage others to do the same.
"I think my life's better now," he says. "I was a workaholic. But one of the positives from having a life-altering illness is that I now have a different appreciation and perspective on my life."
Sharing his story
Ken is always curious to hear other survivor stories and willing to tell his own story. He has been interviewed by many television news networks, newspapers and radio stations. In June, he returned to NCH to speak at a cancer survivor event held in the hospital auditorium. NCH chose a mountain theme for the event, based on his trip with Dr. Bilimoria.
"Just to spend a few minutes talking to people and sharing my story was very gratifying," he says. "One of the things I shared was that in April when I saw Dr. Bilimoria, he had a plaque for me of a silhouette of Mount Kilimanjaro with the four words: 'Go Live Your Dream.' That's a wonderful reminder of how I now try to live my life."
Ken recently published his mountain adventure story, entitled "Go Live Your Dream" in the fall issue of Cancer Health. It's a story he never tires of telling, and he hopes it will encourage others.
As for nearing the five-year mark, he's not as focused on it as people might think.
"I think five years – for statistical purposes – means I am technically cured," Ken says. "But after surgery when Dr. Bilimoria gave me a positive prognosis and said, 'all is good,' I believed then that I was cured. The reality for me is that every day is a reason for celebration."
Pancreas cancer progresses quickly. Early diagnosis is critical. Seek medical attention early if you're experiencing symptoms similar to Ken's. NCH offers advanced diagnostics to detect cancer and first-rate cancer treatment and services, including the da Vinci® Surgical System and NanoKnife. Read more about Pancreas Cancer Care at NCH and call 847-618-4968 for a referral to a doctor specializing in pancreatic or hepatobiliary diseases.