Straying away From the “Predictable Path:” Dr. Patrick Theriault’s Pancreatic Cancer Survivor Story
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A MEDICAL DOCTOR DIAGNOSED STAGE 1 IN 2017
Straying From the “Predictable Path:” Patrick Theriault’s Story
Diagnosed: November 2017
Survivor: Presently in Remission
Many people with pancreatic cancer know little about the disease when their doctors diagnose them, but that wasn’t the case for Patrick Theriault.
“I’m a medical doctor,” Patrick, of Quebec city, Canada, said while addressing the crowd at the 2023 Power of Us fundraiser for the Seena Magowitz Foundation held in Milwaukee this year. “I learned quite early in my career and on the medical school bench that This is the diagnosis you don’t want to give your patients.”
Yet, it’s the diagnosis he himself received. It all started when he started experiencing epigastric pain that radiated through to his back whenever he ate. An ultrasound followed by a scan showed a suspicious mass in the head of the pancreas. His care team recommended the Whipple procedure, a surgery used to treat some people whose cancer has not moved outside the pancreas. Because Patrick had Stage 1 pancreatic cancer, doctors determined he was a good candidate for surgery.
He had the Whipple in November 2017, and followed it with six months of adjuvant chemotherapy. Despite these efforts, his cancer returned in the same spot (the pancreas) two years later. This time, his care team said it was inoperable and that he likely had 12 – 18 months to live.
“This was my ‘checkmate’ moment,” Patrick said.
Patrick’s doctors started him on palliative chemotherapy, which didn’t work as they’d hoped. He dropped more than 60 pounds, and his tumor continued to grow while his spirits and morale sank. He’d sought out the best possible care he could find in Canada but now felt he had little choice other than to follow his doctors’ advice and get his affairs and paperwork in order.
Patrick drafted a will and shared the news with his three children. He’d resigned himself to what he thought was the inevitable and had lost hope when Sean Kellman, who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, recommended he reach out to a former schoolmate of his, Natalie Sabga. Natalie is the founder of the John E. Sabga Foundation for pancreatic cancer, a Trinidad and Tobago-based nonprofit that works to improve early detection methods and, ultimately, helps identify a cure for pancreatic cancer.
Natalie named the foundation after her husband John, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2017, and uses it to generate money for research and raise awareness about the disease. Pancreatic cancer has high incidence and mortality rates in Trinidad and Tobago, with the annual mortality rate in the island nation skyrocketing 545% since 1990.
Natalie responded to Patrick’s message within a matter of hours and encouraged him to meet with Erkut Borazanci, M.D., or “Dr. B,” an oncologist and clinical investigator with the HonorHealth Research Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona. However, because this happened in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting had to take place virtually.
After “meeting” with Patrick and reviewing his tests and scans, Dr. B’s opinion differed from that of Patrick’s Canadian care team. Because Patrick’s cancer recurrence was localized, Dr. B recommended Patrick undergo radiation, an option never discussed by his previous doctors. Previous doctors had said pancreatic cancer wasn’t responsive to radiotherapy, and the cancer could potentially spread if chemo was stopped.
Patrick determined he had little to lose. After completing radiation, he began taking an oral maintenance chemo, and he continues to take it now, three years later. His tumor has regressed as a result of the radiation and oral chemotherapy combination, and he feels great physically as well as emotionally. He also feels hope, both for his own future and for the future of pancreatic cancer care.
“A disease is studied in order to establish a predictable pattern of its course. We establish prognosis, we establish treatment, based on predictability of the disease. When I received my own diagnostic, I knew the predictable path of the disease; I’d studied that at school,” Patrick said during his speech at Power of Us. “As a patient, I was reminded again of the poor prognosis, and just like my team of doctors, I resigned myself to this predictable outcome. Well, the work being done by Natalie Sabga and the Sabga Foundation, by Dr. B, by Lana Caldwell and the team at HonorHealth, by Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, Dr. Colin Weekes, by Dr. Douglas B. Evans, by Roger Magowitz and the foundation – this is important work. Because, together, what they are doing is changing the predictable path of pancreatic cancer.”
As of October 2023, Patrick continues to take a maintenance chemotherapy pill to help prevent a cancer recurrence. He’s also an active member of the Seena Magowitz Foundation’s PancreaticcancerSOS.org for pancreatic cancer survivors and their caregivers, where he meets virtually with other people who have, or who have had, pancreatic cancer.
He also looks to heighten awareness about pancreatic cancer, not only among members of the public, but among the medical people who are responsible for treating it.
“We need to educate more than just the patients – we need to reach out to the medical teams,” Patrick said, noting that care teams across the globe need to hear more about the research, medical advances and positive stories emerging in pancreatic cancer care. “We need them to join in educating patients, helping them maintain hope and getting earlier diagnoses. It’s terrible to see pancreatic cancer medical teams abdicating and surrendering hope.”
Patrick, for one, is not about to do that.
“Thank you very much for all the work you’re doing,” he said to Dr. B and the other doctors and researchers in attendance at Power of Us while concluding his speech. “You’re making this disease one where research is active and promising, and hope remains.”