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Richard Novell Pancreatic Cancer Survivor Story


Written By: Julia Brabant
September 2023

Date of Diagnosis: September 2012
Current Status: No Sign of Active Cancer

3-Time Cancer Survivor Richard Novell on Raising Awareness, Furthering Research & Losing His Twin to a Cancer He Survived

When Richard Novell was born in 1949, doctors gave him a 1 in 100 chance of surviving. Richard and his identical twin brother, Bernard, were born premature, weighing just 3.4 and 4.2 pounds, respectively. Now, nearly 75 years later, Richard continues to beat the odds, persevering past not only his low birth weight, but three types of cancer, too.

Richard’s first cancer diagnosis came in 1994. He sought care for a broken arm and doctors prescribed a high dose of Ibuprofen that thinned his blood. While treating his bleeding, doctors found a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, leading to a stomach cancer diagnosis. Richard had surgery to remove the Stage 1 tumor, which doctors deemed premetastatic, meaning there was a risk of it migrating to somewhere else in his body.

About eight years later, Richard’s twin brother received a Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and the family lost him just two months later. Richard’s second diagnosis, for prostate cancer, came 10 years after that, in 2012. The care team at the hospital he’d visited for 40 years recommended radiation, but Richard believed a more aggressive, surgical approach was warranted and switched hospitals as a result.

Shortly after having a prostatectomy, which removes the prostate gland, Richard’s gallbladder ruptured, leading his doctor to identify another tumor on the tail of his pancreas while treating the rupture.

“Aside from the tumor, I had no symptoms at all,” Richard said. “That’s why pancreatic cancer is such a silent killer – when most people find out they have it, it’s already metastasized.”

Doctors diagnosed Richard’s pancreatic cancer as Stage 3 and advised him he likely had about 20 months to live. It wasn’t until he met with Dr. Beth A. Erickson, M.D., a radiologist at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, that his spirits began to lift.

“She told me, ‘We have a tumor board, Mr. Novell, and we’ve been studying your case,’” Richard said. “’If anyone’s going to make it, you are.’”

In addition to Dr. Erickson, Richard’s care team at Froedtert included Dr. Kathleen Christians, his surgeon, and Dr. Ben George, his oncologist. Dr. Christians performed a distal pancreatectomy, removing the tail of Richard’s pancreas along with his spleen. The doctor also removed 19 lymph nodes, 9 of which were cancerous.

Post-surgery, Richard’s team recommended he take a “sandwich” approach to follow-up treatment and have chemotherapy, then radiation, and then more chemotherapy periodically for the next five years. He followed these instructions while building strength, broadening his support network and gaining knowledge about what might have contributed to his cancer along the way.

After three rounds of genetic testing, Richard learned he and possibly his brother had mutations in their CHEK2 genes, which they had inherited from his father’s side of the family. The mutation placed them at a heightened risk of developing certain types of cancers, including gastrointestinal cancers and prostate cancer. Richard’s son also had the CHEK2 gene mutation and enrolled in a surveillance program at Froedtert to monitor his condition.

The knowledge about the gene mutation and the “survivor’s guilt” Richard felt for living so far beyond his brother and so many others helped drive his decision to become more active in the pancreatic cancer community. He’d also connected with another local survivor he’d seen on the local news who encouraged him to link up with a major pancreatic cancer research organization – advice Richard ultimately followed, amassing about $25,000 for research by soliciting donations from friends, family members and clients from his IT business.

While Richard continues to raise awareness about and funding for pancreatic cancer research, he has also begun telling his own story more and more, making a point to try to share it with at least one stranger each day.

“When you have cancer, you need something to distract you from the things you have no control over,” he said. “Keeping busy helps you put the things that cause you grief behind you.”

Richard also recently attended the Power of Us annual fundraiser for the Seena Magowitz Foundation in Milwaukee, where he joined about 80 other survivors as well as some of their surgeons, oncologists and caretakers.

“It was so much fun to meet other survivors and tell them my story – it was really fulfilling and inspiring,” he said. “Whether we realize it or not, every move we make affects those around us, and the more we can shine a light on positivity and goodness, the better off we’ll all be.”

Reflecting back, Richard credits much of his successful recovery from cancer to three factors: God’s grace, great doctors and his own tenacious attitude. He also has some words of wisdom for anyone currently facing a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

“Don’t believe everything they tell you,” he said. “Based on what some doctors said, I’d be dead by now. I feel very lucky to have the privilege of being a 11-year survivor.”

Richard has shown no sign of cancer since August of 2013.

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