For the first time in his life, Michael, then 58, didn’t feel like himself. It was like a switch had turned off, draining his energy and appetite. A retired train conductor who had always been a “big guy with a hearty appetite,” he was understandably concerned.
When his skin started turning yellow and his urine became rust-colored, he sought immediate care at the Ascension Sacred Heart ER. After running blood tests and imaging scans, doctors detected a pancreas mass blocking his bile duct, the tube carrying bile from the liver to the small intestine.
“I feel blessed that my symptoms made me go to the hospital,” Michael said. “If I would have waited any longer, I think it would have been too late.”
Additional workup confirmed the pancreas mass was cancer. With pancreatic cancer, time is of the essence because the cancer often grows and spreads undetected. According to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer is now the third-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, with projections indicating that it will be second only to lung cancer in its lethality by 2025.
Instead of traveling hundreds of miles away from his support network of family and friends, Michael had access to comprehensive cancer care close to home. At Ascension Sacred Heart Cancer Center, a multidisciplinary team of doctors with diverse medical backgrounds, such as radiology, surgical oncology, pathology, and medical and radiation oncology, share best practices to provide patients with advanced treatment options for complex cancer care.
The multidisciplinary team gathers weekly to discuss cancer cases and share clinical decisions. Their different perspectives offer a 360-degree approach to cancer care and care coordination. Studies have shown that a multidisciplinary approach to cancer care optimizes patient outcomes and improves care performance.
“When they told me I had pancreatic cancer, I was scared,” Michael said. ”But I started to have hope after meeting Dr. Leo [Villegas] and he explained my options. That little bit of hope was all I needed to climb out of the hole. I put my life in his hands.”
Dr. Leo Villegas, a surgical oncologist at Ascension Sacred Heart, is the only fellowship-trained surgical oncologist performing complex GI cancer surgeries east of Mobile, Alabama, to Tallahassee, Florida. Dr. Villegas performed a complex surgery called a Whipple procedure that removed part of Michael’s pancreas, small intestine, a portion of the common bile duct, stomach and gallbladder.
A month later, Ascension Sacred Heart medical oncologist Dr. Dany El-Sayah started Michael on a regimen of chemotherapy to reduce the chances of cancer coming back, while being closely followed by his multidisciplinary team.
“If I didn't have Dr. Leo and Dr. Dany, I wouldn't be here,” Michael said. “I'm a walking miracle and proof that everything I needed to save my life was available locally.”
Michael, now 62, is grateful to have been given four additional years - and counting - with his 17-year-old son. “My son is a senior in high school and he’s my sole focus right now,” he said. “My goal is to see him graduate.”
Comprehensive cancer care close to home
When you choose Ascension Sacred Heart Cancer Center for your cancer care, a multispecialty team of doctors, surgical and medical oncologists, and radiologists guide you through diagnosis, treatment and beyond. If you or a loved one needs cancer care, we’re here for you with compassionate, personalized care at every step. Visit ascension.org/SacredHeartCancerCare