A Heart-Dropping Diagnosis
In February 2021, Nancy had to follow her own advice. One morning she woke up jaundiced. She felt fine, but consulted with her primary care doctor. Results of her blood tests were normal, but her liver values were elevated.
When subsequent tests showed her liver values had worsened, her doctor ordered a CT scan.
The scan showed a tumor in her pancreas. ”Well, my heart just went through the floor,” Nancy says. “I thought, besides glioblastoma, I can’t have anything worse.”
The cancer was stage 2. Duke surgeon Peter Allen, MD, performed surgery right away. Nancy needed the Whipple procedure, a complex operation to remove parts of the pancreas, the small intestine, gall bladder, and stomach, then reattach the remaining portions so they can function.
“Dr. Allen was so very positive, and he reassured me,” Nancy says. The surgery went well. She didn’t have a lot of pain, and the 10-day recovery was easier than she expected.
The treatment afterward was the challenging part for her. She could tolerate only four weeks of the planned eight-week chemotherapy regimen. She lost more than 50 pounds.
She hadn’t realized how weak she had become. “It was all I could do to leave the cancer center and walk to the parking deck,” she says. “When I was at my worst, Gordon had to help me up those three steps. I did not have the strength to get up the steps, and it really surprised me.”
Nancy has worked through it with the help of her husband of 52 years. She feels stronger now, able to climb the stairs leading to their beach home without stopping to rest. She is cooking and enjoying some of her favorite foods again, like fresh summer corn. Listening to the waves is its own form of therapy.
“Right now, I am in a holding pattern of recovering strength, gaining weight, and eating,” she says.
Once she is stronger, she hopes to work with her oncologist, James Abbruzzese, MD, to try a different treatment regimen tailored to her. “As anxious as I am about not being treated right now, because I know how aggressive pancreatic cancer is, I also know that my team has my best interests at heart,” she says.
Friends who have been treated elsewhere have told her that sometimes they felt their doctors weren’t listening to them. She has found the opposite at Duke. “Dr. Abbruzzese has been really good about answering my questions,” she says.
Nancy is optimistic about the future, including the hope of defeating all cancer if young researchers are supported. The Wrights’ granddaughter, Elyse, has an interest in science and cancer research, and she interned in the lab of Duke cancer researcher Jason Somarelli, PhD, during her junior year of high school. She is now a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and is working in the lab of a cancer researcher there.
Elyse credits Somarelli with encouraging her passion for research. “Dr. Somarelli valued my thoughts and questions, and he was the first person to really challenge my thinking and push me to think more critically,” she says.
“You cannot foster an interest in research early enough,” Nancy says. “As my granddaughter says, ‘Why can’t I be the one to discover a cure for cancer?’ You have to love the passion and optimism of youth.”