UPDATE: Janelle Kennedy passed away on November 18, 2010. Through her participation in a clinical trial at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, Kennedy enjoyed a higher quality of life than the average pancreatic cancer patient and her participation helped move cancer research forward. We thank her.
Janelle Kennedy knew that telling people she had cancer would not be easy. But in her case, it was awful. Over and over again, she got the same horrified reaction from everyone she told.
“They’d say to me, ‘Oh no! You have pancreatic cancer. You’re a goner.’ ’’
The dire prognosis for her form of cancer escaped Kennedy, or maybe it was her relentlessly sunny attitude that provided her with her ignorance is bliss form of self-defense.
“I don’t know how everyone knows so much about pancreatic cancer. I didn’t even know what my pancreas was when I was diagnosed,” said Kennedy, a 54-year-old mother of two teenagers who lives in Newbury Park. “I never bought into all the gloom and doom. I believed I would be cured. I never once thought I was going to die.”
It was June of 2006 when Kennedy noticed an odd, yellowish tint to her skin. She went to a local hospital and scans revealed a large mass on her pancreas. Doctors there recommended she go to UCLA to see specialists. After nine hours in the emergency room and numerous tests, she was hospitalized and UCLA specialists set out to determine what the mass was and what could be done about it. She spent 11 days in the hospital while doctors tried to determine whether she had bile duct or pancreatic cancer.
Three weeks later, she returned to UCLA for surgery, a Whipple procedure to remove the cancerous parts of the pancreas, duodenum, common bile duct and part of the stomach. But when doctors opened her up to remove the mass, they found the tumor was entwined around her hepatic artery, a vital artery that distributes blood to the liver, pancreas, gallbladder, stomach and a portion of the small intestine. Removing the tumor was not possible—all they could do was remove her gall bladder and create a bypass around the tumor.
“The biopsy revealed I had the worst kind of pancreatic cancer there was,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy may have been unaware of the grim statistics regarding her cancer. But if she’d done research, she would have discovered some daunting facts. This year alone, about 37,680 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Of those, 34,290—more than 90 percent - will die of the disease. It’s a difficult cancer to treat because, once discovered, it has usually already spread to other organs.
Kennedy remained undaunted. Her mood positive and hopes high, she underwent nine months of chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the mass. Because the scans showed her cancer had not spread, doctors decided to take another shot at the Whipple surgery. When they opened her up this time, the tumor was dead, which Kennedy calls “miraculous.” Surgeons removed her duodenum, half her pancreas and part of her stomach.
Doctors recommended more chemotherapy after the surgery, and Kennedy happily complied. However, the treatment caused her to develop a rare blood disorder called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura or TTP, a serious illness that required a two-month hospitalization. She needed 60 procedures called plasmapheresis, which involve the removal, treatment and return of the blood plasma from circulation.
She’s still watched closely by doctors for cancer and TTP recurrence, but she’s feeling a lot better these days. It’s now been two years now since Kennedy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She remains cancer-free and, as ever, eternally optimistic.
“I always felt I was in excellent hands at UCLA. I never doubted my doctors for a minute,” Kennedy said. “They were my heroes.”
The single mother is now working on a book, tentatively titled “Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff,” about her experience battling cancer. She runs her own private music business and cares for her two children. She says that in many ways, she’s still recovering from her fight against cancer.
“I’ve been through so much in the past two years. I don’t know that it has hit me yet,” she said. “I just keep going along. There’s something built into me that I never think gloomy thoughts. When something bad happens, I just concentrate on what to do to fix it. Feeling sorry for myself was not an option. This was a battle I was going to win.”
—By Kim Irwin