Learning about Pancreatic Cancer
- Before his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Charles Czajkowski dealt with weight loss, a diabetes diagnosis, pancreatitis and diarrhea. Now, he’s spreading awareness for the disease in the hopes that others can detect their cancer at earlier stages.
- Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease that is difficult to detect because symptoms – including jaundice and weight loss – typically present at a later stage in the cancer’s development.
- If you’re concerned about pancreatic cancer in your family, you should start by talking to a genetic counselor to learn more about your risk and what options you have, according to one of our experts.
- Resilience is not an uncommon trait amongst cancer warriors. Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, says her cancer journey helped her uncover “some beautiful things: Wisdom. Love. Life purpose. Priorities.”
Czajkowski’s cancer journey began when his health started to deteriorate in 2017. At that time, he was diagnosed with type two diabetes and dealt with recurring bouts of pancreatitis – or inflammation of the pancreas. He also started losing weight and was kept under observation.Read More
That’s when he started having pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, or PERT, in order to stabilize his weight and replenish the crucial digestive enzymes he was lacking which caused him to struggle with food digestion.
As a follow-up, he underwent scans and tests that eventually led to the discovery of a tumor on the head of Czajkowski’s pancreas in March 2019.
“[A doctor] said to me, Charles, you don’t have chronic pancreatitis, you have pancreatic cancer,” he said.
Instead of panicking, Czajkowski went into problem-solving mode and immediately asked for next steps. His doctor then told him that he would need a Whipple procedure (pancreaticoduodenectomy) – an operation to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine (duodenum), the gallbladder and the bile duct while the remaining organs are reattached to allow you to digest food normally post-surgery.
But when Czajkowski heard he would have to wait two months for the operation at this practice, he went searching for alternatives. Thankfully, he found a place that could perform the procedure just one week later.
Czajkowski was discharged after about two weeks in the hospital. A month after that, he began six months of chemotherapy treatments that took a toll on his body and caused him to lose weight.
“I looked skeletal,” he said. “But I managed to stick it out. With a lot of hard work, you have to fight it, it’s a battle.”
A post-chemo scan found no evidence of new tumors, but another scan in the beginning of 2020 showed dots on his right lung and a lymph node that eventually grew to be tumors by August. That’s when doctors tried lung ablation – a minimally invasive procedure that destroys tumor tissue by either heat or cooling mechanisms. – followed by a specialized form of radiotherapy using an MRI system.
Life eventually went back to normal for a while aside from check-up scans. But a scan in May 2022 showed that his pancreatic cancer had returned in a secondary form. He’s since been back on chemotherapy, and he will find out if his treatments have shrunk his tumor later this month.
All the while, Czajkowski has been determined to educate others about the disease that just won’t seem to leave him alone. He’s a pancreatic patient representative for NHS Cancer UK and a pancreatic patient representative and on the scientific advisory board for Pancreatic Cancer UK.
“It’s given me control,” Czajkowski said. “Pancreatic cancer has declared war on me… so to get back at it, I’ve declared war on pancreatic cancer by being able to help educate and save other people’s lives.”
Understanding Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive disease that is difficult to detect because symptoms – including jaundice and weight loss – typically present at a later stage in the cancer’s development. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Anirban Maitra, the co-leader of the Pancreatic Cancer Moon Shot at MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains what he typically sees when patients develop this disease.
“Because the pancreas is inside the abdomen often doesn’t have symptoms that would tell you that something is wrong with your pancreas,” he says. “By the time individuals walk into the clinic with symptoms like jaundice, weight loss, back pain or diabetes, it’s often very late in the stage of the disease.”
Parents, siblings and children of someone with pancreatic cancer are considered high risk for developing the disease because they are first-degree relatives of the individual. PGVs (pathogenic germline variants) are changes in reproductive cells (sperm or egg) that become part of the DNA in the cells of the offspring. Germline variants are passed from parents to their children, and are associated with increased risks of several cancer types, including pancreatic, ovarian and breast cancers. Germline mutations in ATM, BRCA1, BRCA2, CKDN2A, PALB2, PRSS1, STK11 and TP53 are associated with increased risk of pancreatic cancer.
Jessica Everett, a genetic counselor at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, encourages people in this category to look into possible screening options.
“If you’re concerned about pancreatic cancer in your family, start by talking to a genetic counselor to learn more about your risk and what options you have,” Everett said.
In addition, note that up to ten percent of pancreatic cancer cases are caused by inherited genetic syndromes. So, if two or more members of your family have had pancreatic cancer, or if you have pancreatic cysts, it’s worth asking your doctor to check for pancreatic cancer since you’re at high risk.
The Resilience of Cancer Warriors
Here at SurvivorNet, we get to share stories of resilience all the time because there’s no shortage of brave cancer warriors holding onto hope in the face of adversity and achieving amazing things.
Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, is another resilient cancer survivor like Charles Czajkowski. She was first diagnosed with colon cancer in high school and proceeded to beat the disease not once, but twice.
Understandably so, Ripley-Burgess has had to work through a lot of complex emotions that came with her cancer journey. Even still, she’s always managed to look at life with a positive attitude.
“As I’ve worked through the complex emotions of cancer, I’ve uncovered some beautiful things: Wisdom. Love. Life purpose. Priorities,” she previously told SurvivorNet. “I carry a very real sense that life is short, and I’m grateful to be living it! This has made me optimistic.
“Optimism doesn’t mean that fear, pain and division don’t exist – they do. Our world is full of negativity, judgment and hate. Optimism means that I believe there’s always good to be found despite the bad, and this is what my life is centered around.”
She moves through life with a sense of purpose unique to someone who’s been faced with the darkest of times. Happily in remission today, she’s determined to, one day, leave the world better than she found it.
“We can choose to stay positive, treat others with respect and look for the light in spite of the darkness,” she said. “This type of attitude and behavior will lead to the kind of legacies I believe all of us hope to leave.”