BY DARA KURTZ
Pancreatic cancer is known to be one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Usually, by the time it is found, it is in advanced stages. That’s why, in April of 2014 at the age of 35, Alisha Hughart, who had been losing weight and having back pain was shocked to hear a scan revealed a three-centimeter mass on her pancreas.
After getting it biopsied and receiving a confirmed diagnosis, an appointment to meet with an oncologist was scheduled for late May. Hughart never made it to the first appointment.
On May 17th she started vomiting bile and was deathly ill. A trip to the emergency room and many tests revealed she was in trouble. After putting a stent into her liver and stomach, Hughart was given three choices: do nothing, do radiation or start chemotherapy. None of these choices would do anything but extend her life, and she opted for the chemotherapy, which would extend her life by the longest – fifteen months. At the time, her two boys were sixteen and fourteen.
“I was in total shock,” Hughart said, “but willing to do whatever I could to live as long as possible.”
After starting chemotherapy in the hospital, her body became so weak it took staying in the hospital for 39 days before she was strong enough to go home and continue with the planned chemotherapy. The chemotherapy worked, and she became a candidate for external beam therapy, a form of radiation treatment. Twenty-eight sessions later, she was told her cancer was still inoperable.
Kathy Bowman, a GI Oncology Nurse Navigator at Novant Health who met Hughart during this time says, “From the moment of diagnosis, our team is dedicated to providing hope for patients and their families through timely and personalized care. It is a collaborative effort to assure each patient has access to the latest evidence-based care, with a focus on making life larger than cancer.”
Hughart really wanted to have surgery and was willing to go anywhere to have it. She went to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Georgia and met Dr. Kevin Watkins, one of the first doctors to ever perform a new procedure called the IRE. It is a nano knife procedure that allowed Hughart to have her only shot of the future she dreamed about and a chance at remission.
In October of 2015, she was able to have surgery and then followed that with more chemotherapy. A recent scan shows there’s no evidence of disease in her body, something she never thought she would hear.
She says her life has returned to a new normal. She has trouble gaining weight, tires easily and has to take Creon for the rest of her life to help her digest her food. However, she realizes how blessed she truly is to be alive. According to the American Cancer Society, the projected statistics for 2016 indicate about 53,070 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 41,780 people will die from the disease soon after diagnosis. Of these, an estimated 1,700 diagnosed cases will be in North Carolina. It is the only major cancer with a 5-year relative survival rate in the single digits, at just 7%.
The average age at the time of diagnosis is 71, significantly older than Hughart. Genetic testing revealed that Hughart does have the gene for pancreatic cancer.
Now thirty-eight, Hughart says her faith got her through the challenge, and she took one step at a time. She knows how blessed she is to have her life and doesn’t take it for granted. She holds a weekly morning meditation to provide spiritual inspiration to women and says it’s a blessing to be able to help other people.
“If I can make it easier for someone else going through this, it would be worth it and I would gladly do it again,” Hughart said.