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BARBARA BENDLIN PANCREATIC CANCER SURVIVOR STORY
Building Strength, Accepting Help and Adapting to Life, Post-Surgery: Barbara Bendlin’s Story
Written By: Julia Brabant
Date of Diagnosis: August 2018
Current Status: Cancer Free Since 2018
A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is life-changing, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of life as one knows it. Just ask Barbara Bendlin, a five-year pancreatic cancer survivor who celebrated the end of her cancer journey by backpacking through the Bavarian Alps.
A resident of Milton, Wisconsin, Barbara’s initial symptoms developed in 2018 and were strange and severe enough to catch her attention. She had amber-colored urine, gray stools, jaundice and progressive itchiness, prompting her to schedule a visit with her doctor.
There, her doctor discovered through blood testing that she had high levels of bilirubin, an enzyme the liver produces to help with digestion. Barbara underwent a CT scan and an ultrasound, leading to the discovery of a mass on her pancreas.
Barbara’s oncologist recommended she try chemotherapy with the hope that it would shrink her tumor enough to make it operable. After eight rounds of chemo and some unpleasant side effects, Barbara met with a surgeon. The surgeon said the tumor was “marginally resectable” and that he wasn’t sure he could get all of it through surgery.
“I really wasn’t comfortable with that,” Barbara said. “I wanted a second opinion.”
“After reviewing my scans, he said, “This is one of the easier surgeries I’ll do,” Barbara recalled of her initial meeting with Dr. Evans. “He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’re going to be just fine.’ That was the first time I had actual hope I’d survive.”
Barbara and her husband, David, both of whom are retired educators, made the decision to move forward with a Whipple procedure at Froedtert. The complex surgery is potentially curative for some patients with pancreatic cancer.
Ahead of the Whipple, Barbara heeded the advice of Dr. Evans and his team by staying in shape and exercising as if she were training for a marathon. Alongside her adult daughters, who had moved back home to help Barbara following her diagnosis, she snow-shoed, walked several miles a day, took Zumba classes and did everything else she could to build up strength ahead of the procedure.
And it must have worked, because the surgery went well.
“I couldn’t believe the care, attention and love I felt from the entire team at Froedtert,” Barbara said. “Everyone from Dr. Evans to the nurses and nursing assistants were encouraging and supportive, and it really helped my recovery.”
Now, five years later, Barbara has follow-up visits with her medical team every six months. She credits much of her successful recovery to the team at MCW, her family’s support and her commitment to staying healthy and fit both before and after her Whipple surgery.
She says she lives a relatively normal lifestyle – after continued clean bills of health, she even took what she dubbed her “Cancer Victory Tour:” a three-week solo trip to Germany, where she enjoyed 10-days of backpacking through the Alps.
In the years since her diagnosis and Whipple surgery, Barbara has become increasingly involved in pancreatic cancer research fundraising and advocacy efforts. She also attended the Seena Magowitz Foundation’s 2023 Power of Us event in Milwaukee, where she joined more than 80 people with pancreatic cancer as well as their caregivers, loved ones and some of today’s top research and oncology experts.
“Meeting and talking with doctors and researchers gave me hope for the future, for me and for anyone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” she said. “I left the event feeling like I was truly a warrior who could face any battle with strength and courage knowing others had walked the same path and had survived.”
Barbara noted that when she meets other people with pancreatic cancer or people facing recent diagnoses, she encourages them to seek second opinions if they aren’t on board with their doctors’ recommendations for treatment – or lack thereof.
“Never give up; always remain hopeful,” she said. “Seek second opinions if you aren’t comfortable with what you hear from a doctor. Let your friends and relatives take care of you and shower you with love, and try to stay physically active so your body can withstand treatment and surgery better.”
She also said that, while some people feel reluctant to share the details of their illnesses with others because they don’t want to “be a downer,” in her case, she found it very beneficial to be open and honest about her entire journey.
“I kept people up-to-date with my journey through the website called “Caring Bridge,” she said. “Because I was so open about my situation, I found myself showered with love and prayers and well-wishes. That love blanketed me and gave me the strength and stamina to carry on.”
Barbara also believes her diagnosis and recovery period helped strengthen the bonds within her family.
“I realize that not everyone can have family come and live with them, but, for me, having our two daughters live with us played a huge part in our emotional well-being and in my recovery,” she said. “We became so close as a family. That’s been one of the silver linings of my illness.”
Barbara has been cancer-free since 2018.