Charles Haerter, MD: Living with Metastatic Pancreatic Cancer since 2008
I was finally diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer in March 2008, more than a year and a half after I had first experienced symptoms. I knew the outlook was not good and prepared to die. But I did not give up hope completely, and when my daughter-in-law heard about a clinical trial for pancreatic cancer that was having amazing results, I knew I wanted to give it a try. Within a month of receiving the trial drug [a nanoparticle form of paclitaxel (Abraxane)] I started feeling better.
I first experienced symptoms during the summer of 2006. I had several episodes of severe pain under my ribs on my right side. To me, as a physician, they seemed to be pretty typical gallbladder attacks. But two workups found no issues with my gallbladder and failed to identify a cause of my pain.
Later that year, I started experiencing pain in my lower left abdomen. I underwent all sorts of tests, most of them focused on my intestines. But one, a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP), did image my pancreas, which looked normal. Because no one could come up with a better diagnosis, I was treated with anti-inflammatories in case I had inflammatory bowel disease.
The anti-inflammatories took away the pain, but I still didn’t feel right. Then I started to lose weight and my energy went away.
By this time it was January 2008. I met with my family doctor, and he said he would get to the bottom of things. I had a CAT scan, and there, in the tail of my pancreas, was what looked like a tumor about four or five centimeters in size. An endoscopic biopsy, which was performed at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, several weeks later confirmed that it was pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
I was told that surgery was not an option, because my cancer had spread to some of my lymph nodes and my liver, and that if I was lucky I might have one year left to live.
My daughter-in-law, who is a physician, was with us when I was told of the grim prognosis. She mentioned that she had heard, just days earlier, about a clinical trial that was going on at Scottsdale Healthcare for patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer. She had been told that the drug being tested, nanoparticle paclitaxel, was having dramatic effects and suggested this as a possible treatment for my cancer. As my endoscopic biopsy had been performed at the Mayo Clinic, I began my journey with nanoparticle paclitaxel in combination with a chemotherapy called gemcitabine (Gemzar), at the Mayo Clinic.
Almost immediately I felt a better wellbeing. I also was optimistic that the treatment might add a few more years to my life. It has. It is now five and half years since my diagnosis.
During that time, I have been treated with nanoparticle paclitaxel on and off, mostly at the Mayo Clinic, but recently at Scottsdale Healthcare, under the direction of Dr. Daniel Von Hoff. I have suffered from a variety of side effects that have meant that at times I have had to stop treatment with the drug. But each time I have restarted treatment, my cancer has responded. My pancreatic tumors have never disappeared completely, but they always shrink in size, and I feel as good as you can feel with pancreatic cancer.
The treatment I have received has been almost exclusively through clinical trials, and I have received the best care that anyone could have. But many doctors and members of the general public do not know about the clinical trials that are going on. We need to do a better job of educating people and getting them involved, because we need more people and more studies if we are to help more patients.
The AACR was saddened to learn that Dr. Charles Haerter passed away on December 8, 2014. We are deeply grateful to Charles for sharing his experience with metastatic pancreatic cancer in the AACR Cancer Progress Report 2013 to help educate others and advocate for continued funding of cancer research. We send our sincere condolences to Charles’ family and friends.”