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Out of The Blue, A Devastating Diagnosis
Written By Carlin Kuhlmann and Debra Gelbart
Diagnosed: June 18, 2015
Survivor: In Remission
It’s been nearly seven years since Scottsdale resident Joe Levine was diagnosed with stage 2b pancreas cancer and it’s been a whirlwind. He’s been to countless doctor visits; undergone intensive diagnostic imaging, a grueling Whipple surgery and six months of chemotherapy; received the news he’s cancer-free; and as of two and a half years ago, re-entered the work force. He likes to think his positive attitude has a lot to do with his recovery.
“I have an agreement with the guy above the clouds,” said Joe, 60. “I will be here for the next 30 years.”
He’s a quality engineer for ArmorWorks, a defense and security company in Chandler, Arizona that builds innovative products to protect people and assets worldwide.
Joe adores the working environment there and the people he works with. He feels grateful to have connected with a company, led by CEO Kevin Dahlin, that so aligns with his values. “I do work with some amazing people and I’m proud of what we do,” he said. He hopes to continue working there for years to come. His life before coming to ArmorWorks, however, was very different.
How His Battle Began
in June 2015 Joe noticed his urine had turned the color of root beer. At the insistence of his wife Tammy, he went to the hospital. In the emergency department, Joe’s bloodwork showed his bilirubin and lipase (an enzyme the body uses to break down fats in food) levels were dangerously elevated and other factors indicated an extreme case of pancreatitis. He was admitted as an inpatient immediately, while his mom was in hospice care.
An endoscopy revealed a blockage in Joe’s bile duct, so doctors inserted a stent and scheduled him for follow up a few weeks later.
But two weeks after that, Joe was back at the hospital for an imaging procedure that captures x-ray images of the pancreatic and bile ducts. The procedure had been delayed so Joe could attend his mother’s funeral. Joe’s gastroenterologist saw a growth in the bile duct and collected a sample of Joe’s cells during the procedure.
Joe woke up from sedation to the news that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, less than a week after his mother had passed away from a reproductive cancer.
Refusing to Give Up
He was devastated and extremely angry, but ready to fight back. And at stage 2b, the cancer was operable.
He consulted a dear friend who could empathize. Then 87, Mickey Somerman, is a survivor of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in 1999. “She was a wonderful resource and gave me ample advice and accompanied me and my wife when we interviewed multiple surgeons,” Joe remembered. He chose Dr. Adyr Moss, a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, for his Whipple Surgery.
On July 1, 2015, Joe’s surgery lasted more than 10 hours. But it didn’t faze him. “I was determined to take everything they could throw at me and just keep going.”
Four days later, Joe was discharged from the hospital and began preparing for the next phase of his treatment – a clinical trial combining the chemotherapy drugs Gemzar and Abraxane, under the care of Mayo Clinic medical oncologist and former Translational Genomics (TGen) researcher Dr. Mitesh Borad, now at the Mayo Clinic.
The trial had already shown some success in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer and the combination of the two drugs was then being tested on patients with stage 1 and 2 disease. Joe later learned that the original trial was led by world-renowned pancreatic cancer expert Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, Physician in Chief of TGen and the Virginia G. Piper Distinguished Chair for Innovative Cancer Research at the HonorHealth Clincial Research Institute.
For six months, Joe received weekly infusions of the two drugs. He finished the course of the chemotherapy drugs and was declared cancer-free. “I’m convinced that the clinical trial developed by Dr. Von Hoff killed any cancer that may have been floating around in my system after my surgery. Six and a half years later, I’m still clear.”
A Bright Future
Just three years ago, Joe never thought he would work again. But gradually he began to gain back enough strength to think about returning to full employment. He went to a job interview at ArmorWorks and afterward, developed a passion to work there.
Once a year now, he has an appointment with Dr. Erkut Boranzanci at the HonorHealth Research Institute, who Joe describes as “a great, compassionate person who means so much to me that I can’t really convey how much in words.”
Though Joe’s job prevents him from continuing to help pancreatic cancer patients with their needs like he did before he started working at ArmorWorks, he still offers emotional support to the many patients who often call him for advice or to hear the story of a survivor. “I want to continue to help other patients as much as I can,” he said.
He connected with Roger Magowitz, Founder of the Seena Magowitz Foundation through Mickey Somerman. He attended the Seena Magowitz Foundation Golf Classic for the first time in Boston in 2018 and was awestruck by the courage of other pancreatic cancer warriors. “I have met so many who are still going through the trauma of their cancer but are also finding hope through the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), clinical trials and physicians like Dr. Von Hoff and Dr. Borazanci.
Roger Magowitz has devoted himself to finding the cure through supporting their research. This team is truly unsurpassed.”