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Fighting Pancreatic Cancer with Spirit

Diana Sokol-Roth and her husband, Scott Diana Sokol-Roth and her husband, Scott Roth

With the phone back on the receiver, Diana Sokol-Roth cried alone in the silence of her home. Her doctor had just called with the results of her biopsy: She had pancreatic cancer.

Known as a "silent" disease, pancreatic cancer is the tenth most common cancer and the fourth leading cause of death among all cancer patients. "It has the briefest survival rate of any solid tumor and a very low response rate to standard treatment. It makes lung cancer look good," said Hedy Kindler, MD, medical director of gastrointestinal oncology at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Patients often go without symptoms, but Sokol-Roth--a former news anchor turned pharmaceutical representative--knew her body well. When she felt burning pain near her ribs, she called her doctor immediately.

"I just knew it was important," she said.

After the diagnosis, Sokol-Roth broke down, but not for long. Her husband was out of town on business, and she knew she could mourn all day if she let herself. "I loved my work so I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to go see my favorite docs.’"

And she did. That November day in 2009, Sokol-Roth made her rounds among the Chicago-area doctors she had visited for the past four years as a sales representative, and she told them her news: At 43 years old, she had been diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer.

"To have some of these grown men cry," Sokol-Roth said, "and for them to see a young woman--they just couldn’t believe it. They had a lot of questions." Sokol-Roth had questions, too. Though two of the leading causes of pancreatic cancer are smoking and genetics, she had a history of neither.

"It was a complex case. There were ambiguities that made it challenging and required multi-disciplinary collaboration," Kindler said, adding that Sokol-Roth is a "terrific woman, really dynamic. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to make sure she gets the best results."

Two months later--following surgery to remove a portion of her pancreas, bile duct and small intestine--Sokol-Roth met with Kindler. She was scheduled to undergo six months of chemotherapy and then six weeks of radiation.

Hedy Lee Kindler, MD Hedy Lee Kindler, MD

According to Kindler, less than 15 percent of patients are eligible for surgery. The average patient who undergoes a pancreas resection lives approximately two years. "It’s a very challenging disease," she said. At the University of Chicago Medicine, however, where physicians are constantly involved in leading-edge research, clinical trials and advanced treatment options abound.

"What if this doesn’t work?" Sokol-Roth asked Kindler. "Then we have a whole arsenal of different clinical trials," Kindler replied.

Kindler went on to answer every question Sokol-Roth had, and after that meeting, Sokol-Roth knew she had "found somebody that was going to get us through the next chapter."

She had found the right place, too. Every week, she visited the chemotherapy unit, and got to know the nurses and other patients also undergoing treatment. "You feel like part of a family," she said. "[Everyone] is funny and welcoming. They miss you and want to know what’s new."

At home, Sokol-Roth’s husband kept her laughing, too. When she was diagnosed, they had only been married six months, "but we’ve probably laughed more in the past six months than in all the four years we’ve known each other," she said. "I believe that positive attitude makes you feel better and puts all the people around you at peace."

And while Sokol-Roth brings peace to those closest to her, the people she sees at the medical center bring that same feeling to her. "I feel like I have the best team working on me. They do it with a lot of empathy and a lot of care," she said.

That care has brought Sokol-Roth a long way in a short time. "She’s been through the most difficult part of treatment and sailed through with flying colors," Kindler said. She has high hopes for her patient. "She’s a lady who’s got a true fighting spirit, and I really admire that. I’m rooting for her."

November 2010