Pancreatic cancer survivor works to raise awareness
Numbers can help to get a handle on disease, especially those as mystifying and seemingly unfair as cancer.
Pancreatic cancer statistics offer one example.
It is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
Across the nation, about 45,200 people will be diagnosed with it and 38,500 people will die from it before the end of the year, according to the National Cancer Institute.
In observance of National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, 63-year-old Jim Comerford, a Grand Junction businessman, stepped forward last week to tell his unusual story of survival.
In the years since his surgery and treatment, Comerford and his wife, Janet, have dedicated much of their time to trying to raise awareness about the disease and about the availability of quality cancer care in both Grand Junction and Boulder.
Comerford is also working to raise money for pancreatic cancer research by serving on the board of directors of Wings of Hope for Pancreatic Cancer Research, a Colorado nonprofit organization formed this year.
Based on a study of pancreatic cancer death rates between 2006 and 2010, an average of 431 people die from pancreatic cancer in Colorado each year, 15 of those in Mesa County, the National Cancer Institute says.
The 2010 study showed pancreatic cancer deaths were on the rise across the United States, but remained stable in most of Colorado except for Mesa, Larimer, Boulder, Jefferson and Weld counties, where deaths due to the disease actually were declining, a small comfort for those engaged in battling it.
Slightly more than 5 percent of those afflicted with pancreatic cancer survive beyond five years, according to Wings of Hope.
“When you’re one of the 5 percent who has survived this disease, you feel it’s your duty to try to change these statistics,” Comerford said.
A tadpole-shaped gland about six inches in length, the pancreas is located in the abdomen, and surrounded by the stomach, small intestine, liver, spleen and gallbladder.
From right to left, it starts wide at one end, known as the head, narrows along a neck and body, and terminates in a narrow tail, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Most people, especially those with diabetes, know the gland is important because it secretes insulin, which acts like a key to opens the locks on the body’s cells allowing glucose, or blood sugar, to get inside to be burned as energy.
“If the glucose can’t get into your cells, it builds up in your bloodstream,” according to the medical technology company, Becton, Dickinson. “If left untreated, high blood glucose can cause long-term complications.”
While a malfunctioning pancreas sometimes leads to diabetes, a cancerous pancreas leads to death much faster.
Unlike other cancers, such as breast and blood where new treatments mean longer survival rates, the 5 percent survival rate for pancreatic cancer has remained unchanged for more than 80 years, Comerford said.
Jim Comerford’s fight with pancreatic cancer started a few days before he turned 60 years old.
Like many diagnosed with the disease, the signs were few and far between. It started with an unusual pain in the middle of his abdomen.
An initial diagnosis of pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas, gave way to more serious concerns after Comerford’s primary care doctor, John Flanagan, ran into him at the golf course and told him he looked jaundiced.
“I thought he was just giving me grief about the yellow golf shirt I was wearing,” Comerford said.
Flanagan ordered several computerized tomography, or CT, scans of his torso, each of which failed to reveal a tumor in Comerford’s pancreas. Despite the negative scans, Flanagan was convinced there was more to his patient’s condition than an inflamed gland, Comerford said.
Flanagan referred Comerford to St. Mary’s Hospital, where Dr. Eric Hanly, a pancreatic specialist and surgeon, ordered a more localized scan that finally spotted the tumor.
A difficult conversation followed where Hanly informed Comerford and his wife of the diagnosis and scary statistics.
“There are so many questions and you don’t really know what to latch onto,” Comerford said. “But he was wonderful.”
Because cancer of the pancreas can spread and become intertwined with other vital organs quickly, Comerford decided not to wait two weeks to consult with specialists at Johns Hopkins University.
Instead, in September 2010, he opted for surgery at St. Mary’s performed by Hanly and Dr. Teyen Shiao, which resulted in removal of the tumor and 15 lymph nodes, three of which were found to be cancerous.
Comerford then endured two months of chemotherapy at St. Mary’s Regional Cancer Center, followed by five weeks of daily radiation and periodic chemotherapy at the University of Colorado Anschutz Cancer Center in Aurora.
He credits the surgery and treatment at St. Mary’s and CU for his recovery, but also his ability to stay positive and focus on healing.
“People friends, family, even people we didn’t know all that well, were so unbelievably supportive,” particularly his wife and sons, Comerford said.
After nearly five months of chemoradiation, treatment that combines chemotherapy with radiation therapy, at the CU Cancer Center and chemotherapy at St. Mary’s, Comerford’s blood tests came back normal. More than three years after his diagnosis, there is no sign of recurrent disease.
Comerford and his wife are committed to spreading awareness in western Colorado about the resources available to other cancer patients at St. Mary’s and CU.
“These are amazing programs,” Comerford said. “People here need to know there are wonderful resources right here in western Colorado that can help them recover from a cancer diagnosis.”