On her 58th birthday, Donna Robinson was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. It was July 18, 2014, and she had a 9-centimeter tumor on her pancreas.
At the time, she didn’t know much about the disease. She wasn’t aware that less than 20 percent of the 53,000 patients diagnosed every year are candidates for surgery. And only 5 percent of pancreatic cancer patients will survive five years.
All she knew was what her doctors told her.
“They told me it was inoperable and incurable,” said Robinson, who lives in Coral Springs.
Robinson began a chemotherapy regime called Folfirinox.
“It’s kind of the nuclear bomb of chemos,” said Robinson, who had to take it over three days, every two weeks, 11 times. “I was one of the lucky ones because it did shrink the tumor quite dramatically. It shrunk it by 35 percent and then by 70 percent.”
Still, doctors refused to operate on her, saying the procedure would be too dangerous. .
After some research, Robinson found information on doctors who specialize in pancreatic cancer, one of whom was about to join the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at UHealth — the University of Miami Health System.
“It was just pure unadulterated luck that Dr. Merchant was coming down here,” Robinson said. “Immediately after we found out that he was going to be there, we got an appointment with him.”
Dr. Nipun B. Merchant agreed to do the surgery. In the procedure, which took about eight hours, Merchant removed the tumor along with Robinson’s spleen, two-thirds of her stomach and some of her intestines.
“So many times even people who are diagnosed at a potentially surgical stage are told by local physicians nothing can be done,’’ Merchant said. “Then they don’t get the appropriate and aggressive treatment that is necessary.”
The pancreas wraps around critical blood vessels. “If we need to, we will actually take portions of the vein and replace that segment, just to get the tumor out,” Merchant said.
At Sylvester, doctors are studying tumors in the lab to determine which medications work best, tailoring treatment for the individual.
“Cancer is very heterogeneous,” he added. “Yet the way we treat any cancer is that everyone gets the same treatment regime. Some people will respond and some won’t because tumors are different.’’
Memorial Cancer Institute in Hollywood does something similar. It has partnered with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network Know Your Tumor program, attempting to tailor individual treatment regimens based on tumor biology.
“These tumors are very tricky and resistant to standard therapy. That’s why we have to develop novel therapies and try to think outside the box.” said Dr. Ihor Pidhorecky, medical director of Surgical Oncology Services & Pancreaticobiliary Center at Memorial Hospital West in Pembroke Pines.
Today, Robinson is doing much better and has returned to regularly going to the gym, riding her bike and playing pickleball.
“I feel like I am almost back to normal,” Robinson said.