BY LOUIS BALDACHINO
This time 5 years ago I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and was basically facing a 2 to 6-month chance of survival according to statistics. The diagnosis was clearly heading towards having the worst possible outcome. Statistics showed that the overall 5-year survival rate (for all stages) was only 5%. It was simply a terrifying prospect! I still now find it emotional and frightening to read the diagnosis of the CUN (Clinica Universidad de Navarra) Pamplona medical report.
At the time of my diagnosis, I still had a young family and it was obviously the most difficult time of my life. I remember I just cried my eyes out every day for the following couple of weeks! But I also remember taking the most important decision of my life – that I was never going to lose hope and I was never going to let this horrible disease win the battle.
The following 5 years of my life after my diagnosis is the story I want to share with others. I would like to use my experience and faith throughout these years to add my grain of sand and inspire, in any way possible, other people to stay determined, positive and to never lose hope in whatever health issue they may have to fight.
In July 2015 in the context of a pulmonary thromboembolism and bilateral deep vein thrombosis I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer with advanced pancreatic ducal adenocarcinoma which had already infiltrated the spleen, abdominal cavity, left adrenal gland and gastric wall.
I was facing a 2 to 6-month chance of survival.
On 3rd August 2015 I started chemotherapy treatment following the Folfoxiri scheme for 3 months ending in October 2015. This was followed by 1 month of chemoradiotherapy from 28th October to 27th November. Scans done in early December showed he tumor had incredibly shrunk over 50% and the possibility of surgery became a reality! I kept reminding myself, never lose hope.
In January 2016 the 10-hour surgery was carried out (distal pancreatectomy, partial gastrectomy, splenectomy, and left adrenalectomy). With surgery, the survival chances did increase but still the overall forecast was depressing. Post-surgery revaluation revealed lesions in the retro umbilical and prevesical regions. For the next 10 months I was treated with 3 different intravenous chemotherapy treatments (carried out in CUN Pamplona and Madrid) but blood analysis and scans showed that the disease did ‘not go away’.
Participating in a Clinical Trial
Things got worse in October 2017 as scans and other tests confirmed peritoneal progression of the disease.
After much careful analysis of the findings and the very limited possibilities in the way forward I opted to participate in an immunotherapy clinical trial. On the 6th November 2017 I received the first dose within the context of the clinical trial which continued until November 2019. The clinical trial entailed weekly dose/treatment to be carried out in CUN in Pamplona. This, of course, meant the very long traveling every week for 2 years to Pamplona (normally treatment was done on Mondays, so I travelled on Sundays to Pamplona, blood analysis/other tests done on Monday mornings followed by the actual treatment and travelling back later on Monday). Between 25th September and 16th October 2019 residual disease which persisted in the upper intestines area was successfully treated by radiosurgery. Treatment as part of the clinical trial ended on 14th November, after which I presently continue immunotherapy maintenance treatment ever three weeks.
Managing Other Health Issues and Complications
Apart from what I went through specifically for the various treatments and pancreatectomy surgery for the pancreatic cancer, I unfortunately had to overcome many other obstacles and setbacks. To put things in perspective about the enormity of other related health issues I have also had to face during these past 5 years would be too long to describe in detail, but I would summarise as follows:
Three major surgeries had to be carried out, including ‘Sugar-Baker’ surgery (August 2016) intestinal bypass (September 2017) and embolisation of intestinal hemorrhage (October 2015).
Six minor surgeries were also carried out to remove lesions in the abdominal wall area.
Primary adrenal crisis within episode of influenza (March 2016).
Septic shock (September 2018) caused by intense cellulitis in the lower extremities affecting the legs.
It was immensely and desperately tough to say the least, but I remained absolutely determined to never lose hope.
Life After Treatment
Despite all that I have endured, I could not be a happier person today. The many positives I have experienced, so many happy moments and emotions that are too difficult or impossible to put into words. The amount love and support from my family, friends, my work place management and work colleagues seems to have been endless. I have the opportunity to revive lost or dormant friendships and family relationships. The opportunity to meet incredible medical professionals. The opportunity to realise how lucky I have been to work with an incredibly caring management team and wonderfully supportive colleagues. The opportunity to realise how lucky we are to live in Gibraltar and have the support of the GHA and it’s various departments. The opportunity to reaffirm how lucky I am to have such a wonderful wife in Tamara and incredibly strong sons and daughter – Louis, Karl, and Madison. In fact, the positives possibly outweigh all that I have gone through these past 5 years! Many people from all walks of life have approached me to congratulate me for my ‘courage, determination, and positive attitude’ and in some cases even expressed that I have helped them to fight their own health issues. My response is simply to never lose hope.
Subtitle: Reaching the 5-year Milestone
I do not have enough words to describe the absolutely top professionals in CUN Pamplona. Thanks to them I am here today. A quote I was told by CUN Oncologist Dra. Leire Arbea Moreno in May last year, perhaps highlights the magical success in reaching the pancreatic cancer 5 year survival milestone: “Louis, you are one of our miracles of the 21st century!” (“Louis, eres uno de nuestros milagros del Siglo 21!”)
In CUN’s quarterly issued news magazine March 2020 edition as part of a 16-page report on the advances being achieved with immunotherapy and clinical trials featured an interview with me to highlight my ‘success story’ to date.
Thanks to the excellent results of the clinical trial I am now enjoying and living a near-normal life, just further evidence in what I have always believed since I was diagnosed of this horrible disease way back in 2015 – always keep fighting and believing!
Pancreatic cancer facts and overall survival rates are still just frightening to read:
1-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 26%, 5-year survival rate is now 7.9% (was 5% in 2015 but still has the lowest 5-year survival rate of any of the 22 common cancers), 10-year survival of the disease is 1%, meaning only around 1 in 100 people survive 10 years and beyond!
It’s easy to guess that my next goal is the 10-year survival milestone! Hopefully it will not be as complicated and tough as reaching the 5-year survival milestone, but come what may I will be keep determined, positive and strong and of course…
Never lose hope!