For most, pancreatic cancer is a deadly diagnosis. How one Fort Worth man beat the odds

Pancreatic cancer remains one of the most difficult cancers to detect and treat successfully, with just 13% of patients surviving five years after their diagnosis.

Complicating these challenging odds is the fact that surgery to remove a tumor-ridden pancreas is incredibly complex, and is typically only performed by hepatobiliary surgeons, or those with advanced training to operate on the pancreas and the liver.

Dr. Kimberly Washington joined Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth as its first and only hepatobiliary surgeon, bringing easier access to surgery for pancreatic cancer patients who previously had to travel to Dallas. Washington joined the Fort Worth hospital after completing advanced training in transplant and hepatobiliary surgery.

One of those patients is Patrick “Rock” Stone, a longtime Fort Worth resident who underwent a successful surgery that removed most of his pancreas as well as his spleen in February.

Stone, 76, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November 2023. He knew something was wrong after he lost 50 pounds in just one month, a common symptom of patients with pancreatic cancer. When he went to the doctor, Stone said, he was diagnosed with diabetes, another common symptom of patients with pancreatic cancer.

The odds facing Stone were not good: Pancreatic cancer is notoriously difficult to treat. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Pancreatic cancer has one of the lowest five-year survival rates of any major tumor type,” said Dr. Alison Klein, a professor of oncology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.

The survival rate for pancreatic cancer has improved in recent years: A decade ago, just 5% of patients made it to the five-year mark.

“We still have a long way to go because 13% is way too low,” Klein said.

Multiple factors make pancreatic cancer difficult to treat. First, there’s no easy way to screen for it.

Breast, cervical, and colon cancers all have relatively low-cost screenings that can detect cancers in their earlier stages, said Washington, the Fort Worth surgeon. But there’s no comparable screen for pancreatic cancer. This means that pancreatic cancer is often only detected when patients start showing symptoms, which can be later than is ideal for quick treatment.

A second major challenge in treating pancreatic cancer is the location of the pancreas. The organ, which helps with digestion and releases important hormones like insulin, is behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

“Clearly God didn’t want us back there,” Washington joked.

The surgery to remove Stone’s pancreas was like a complicated jigsaw puzzle. To get to Stone’s pancreas, Washington had to pass through tissue that connected Stone’s stomach to the colon, which “drops down like a curtain” on top of the intestines. Washington had to carefully part the curtain of tissue to get between the stomach and colon to Stone’s pancreas.

Then, Washington had to navigate around important blood vessels to remove the pancreas with as little blood loss as possible.

If the cancer is detected too late and has spread to other organs, surgery on the pancreas won’t be effective. And because the surgery is so complex, not all patients will be able to recover well from the procedure.

Stone, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, was a good candidate for surgery both because he was diagnosed relatively early, and because he was in good shape and would likely recover well from the invasive surgery, Washington said.

Stone was treated with a few weeks of chemotherapy, the surgery, and is now finishing up his chemotherapy, a “sandwich” treatment that Washington said is becoming increasingly popular at hospitals affiliated with academic institutes, like Texas Health Harris.

After a long career in the Air Force, during which Stone was a fighter pilot in the F-15 Eagle and accumulated more than 6,000 total flying hours, his diagnosis came as a shock to him and his family. But Stone said he was comforted by Washington’s hope in the face of a difficult disease.

“She’s got unbridled optimism from the word go,” he said.

Once he finishes chemotherapy, Stone is excited to return to his active lifestyle: Driving his pristine Corvette, hunting feral hogs on a friend’s farm, and enjoying other hobbies like listening to the Fort Worth and Dallas symphony orchestras.

Washington’s own journey to treating patients like Stone was influenced by a beloved aunt, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when Washington was a young surgeon working in Arlington. The cancer was diagnosed too late for Washington’s aunt to get surgery.

Washington decided to get additional training so she could work as a hepatobiliary surgeon, and bring greater access to treatment to Fort Worth.

Washington said she thinks the next 10 years will be the most exciting decade for improvement in treating pancreatic cancer, and hopes the disease will move from a scary diagnosis to one with improved rates of survival, with more patients like Stone receiving successful treatment.

“Where we are now for pancreatic cancer is where we were for colon cancer maybe 40 years ago,” Washington said. “And that was the decade where we made the biggest strides.”