Breaking News
More () »

New procedures, clinical trials offer hope for pancreatic cancer patients

UH Seidman Cancer Center conducting several clinical trials relating to the disease, with Heather Sanderson of Berea recently taking part in one.

BEREA, Ohio — Heather Sanderson is a pint-sized CrossFit dynamo.

The 58-year-old is a former physical education teacher with five grown children. The Berea native thrives on challenges such as 5K obstacle races and CrossFit workouts.

She came home to Ohio to take care of her parents. Little did she know, that decision would save her life.

RELATED: More Health Hub stories from Monica Robins

Sanderson says she felt a steady toothache-like pain in her stomach. Some days it would go away, some days it would be painful. But it continued to get worse, and she knew she had to get checked out. 

In April of 2021, Heather had a CT scan that would give her the greatest challenge of her life: pancreatic cancer.

She visited with UH oncologist David Bajor, MD, who is part of the team for gastrointestinal cancers at University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center. She wanted to know what stage her cancer was in, but he wouldn't tell her. He said her focus should be making it to surgery, but that wouldn't be easy. Surgical oncologist Lee Ocuin, MD, was then added to her team. .

Had Heather been told she had stage 3 — locally advanced cancer bordering on inoperable — it could have impacted her mindset. That goal, coupled with a clinical trial and complex surgery only possible at the most advanced academic medical centers, preserved her life.

Heather knew the facts: According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network nearly 62,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and it's estimated nearly 50,000 will die. She turned to her faith and family for strength and comfort. However, she realized something early.

"There was no fear," she said. "I was not scared, and I know that may sound kind of bizarre, but I really had a peace. I guess, to quote the Bible, it was a peace that "surpassed all understanding.'"

From there, Sanderson was ready to start treatment.

"I went through six months of chemo and a month of radiation," she recalled, and then you have to take about six weeks off and then you are ready for surgery."

She also agreed to add a secret weapon to her treatment: She was enrolled in Case 2218, a clinical trial using the novel drug CPI-613. Designed by Drs. Bajor and Jordan Winter for locally advanced pancreatic cancer, this clinical trial was only available at University Hospitals.

As Bajor explains, it combines standard of care chemotherapy with a drug that targets the mitochondria, or the powerhouse of the cell. This drug inhibits enzymes that work in the mitochondria, poisoning them to help kill the cancer.

"With Heather's fitness, Dr. Ocuin's aggressive surgical practice, and the clinical trial, we were able to get her to surgery and through it," Bajor said. "Every patient is different. We want to focus on each patient's unique goals to keep their frame of reference in mind. That is so important in oncology, especially in medical oncology. Being a CrossFit guru intent on getting back to an active life helped Heather, for sure."

During the six months of chemotherapy, Heather took control. She cut her own hair, started a video diary documenting her journey, and even made it to CrossFit each day. 

"I would go at 8:15 every morning," she said, proudbly. "It gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Were there mornings that I didn't want to go? Of course, but it's not just the physical aspect; it's also the community aspect, and my CrossFit family supported me and were there for me the whole way."

Heather had a sizable tumor, and its location made her surgery particularly challenging. The superior mesenteric artery carries blood from the aorta to the pancreas and intestines, and the superior mesenteric vein drains blood from the intestines and takes it up to the liver. 

In Heather's case, the tumor was wrapped around both the superior mesenteric artery and vein. The surgical oncologist had to peel the tumor off the wall of the artery and reconstruct the vein in a challenging 11-hour surgery at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.

"It took a lot of time to free the vein from the tumor and reconstruct it — you have to go millimeter-by-millimeter," Ocuin said. "You have to be patient and meticulous to isolate the anatomy as you go."

Watch the entire Health Yeah! podcast below:

During several weeks of recovery in the hospital, Heather's clinical trials nurse checked on her often, as she had throughout her months of chemotherapy. This vital support caregiver is a major bonus of enrolling in a clinical trial.

Debbie Donohue, a clinical nurse research specialist who works with patients on Phase II and III clinical trials for gastrointestinal cancers, screens patients for eligibility and attends every visit with their medical oncologist. The doctors credit the clinical trial nurses for being a key part of the team that helps patients through this complex process, but Debbie gives the credit to Heather.

"Heather has this great zest for life," Debbie declared. "She has great friends and family support. For someone who's been through months of chemo, a clinical trial, and heavy duty surgery, she's a fighter."

UH Seidman Cancer Center is doing several clinical trials relating to a number of different cancers, including pancreatic. For more information, click HERE.


Before You Leave, Check This Out