**This blog piece was written by Andrew W. Trice, Ph.D.
When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May 2013 and recognized how challenging the disease is, I went looking for the best doctors and cutting-edge treatments available. I found both at Hopkins, and I have no doubt that being a Hopkins patient has extended my life. But I also gained much more.
Over the last two years, I’ve come to understand that a cancer journey has many layers, only some of which involve undergoing medical procedures. It’s more like a complex movie, complete with a villain (the cancer) devising and evolving diabolical strategies for bodily domination, a protagonist (the patient) struggling to respond to existentially threatening events, and a host of allies (especially the medical professionals) providing special skills and powers that the good guys hope will be sufficient.
What has impressed me so much about my indispensable supporting cast at Hopkins is how it not only delivers innovative treatments to cancer patients, but also integrates its care and engages its patients with so much compassion and spirit. Together these factors contribute tremendously to both a patient’s well-being and to medical outcomes. Let me explain this in terms of the cancer journey’s layers and my own experience with them.
At the most basic level, I understand and accept cancer as a biological phenomenon. I can’t change my biology, but Hopkins researchers and clinicians are working hard every day to better understand that biology and move treatments from bench to bedside so that patients like me can have a better shot at beating the disease. The visionary work of Dr. Elizabeth Jaffee and her collaborators on the GVAX vaccine is an outstanding example of that. The more I learn about the biology of cancer, the more appreciation I have for the extent of the challenge and the tenacious brainpower that Hopkins is applying to it, and the more privileged I feel to be able to be part of that story.
When people think about a cancer journey, they usually associate it with the medical treatments an institution can provide. For my type of cancer, Hopkins clearly excels in that arena. By almost any measure, whether volume and safety of Whipple procedures, innovations in radiation treatment, or number of and results from clinical trials, no one is better than Hopkins. When I entrusted my surgery to Dr. Christopher Wolfgang, my radiation supervision to Drs. Joe Herman and Susannah Ellsworth, and my chemotherapy plan and clinical trial monitoring to Dr. Lei Zheng, they all earned my full trust and confidence that I was receiving world-class care. That made me feel like we were doing everything we possibly could to heal me, and that all would be done to the highest standards and the best available knowledge.
The next important layer of a cancer journey is the support network. These are the special people with whom the patient makes a connection and whom they can call on for help at critical times. I could cite numerous instances in which Hopkins professionals provided above-and-beyond support to me, but let me just say a few words about three outstanding individuals in my Hopkins support network. The first is the research nurse who administers my vaccines and keeps me on track with my clinical trial, the amazing Carol Judkins, who has become a true friend and great resource for me while injecting the nicest wide-bore needles a patient could possibly ask for. The second is phlebotomist Robert Gray, who provides the highest-quality banter and gentility imaginable in a place that extracts blood. The third is the nursing assistant whose name I never learned, who held on to me while I blubbered like a baby when I began recovering from the Whipple surgery and realized that I was going to live for a while after all. These key supporting actors and others at Hopkins have made me feel cared for, stronger, and better equipped to soldier on.
Layered on top of the support network are what I label “cross-cutting virtues,” the elements of an individual’s or institution’s character that make a difficult experience like a cancer journey better and more meaningful. At Hopkins there is a can-do attitude and a lightness in the air unmatched by any other medical environment I’ve experienced. When this is coupled with the intense patient focus and quality control I’ve observed at Hopkins, it creates a positive atmosphere that can’t help but rub off on the patient.
The final layer of the cancer journey is the overall system used to manage its many dimensions. For the patient, this involves becoming the CEO, key decision-maker, advocate, and integrator of their cancer journey. As an institution, Hopkins does its executive decision-making in support of the patient through such mechanisms as its award-winning, interdisciplinary pancreatic cancer clinic, tumor boards, and extra-medical services such as counseling and social work. Perhaps patients feel like they have fallen through the cracks between specialists at some places, but that hasn’t at all been my experience here.
I’m now two years into my “cancer movie,” and have been extremely fortunate to have done so well. Enabled by the superb care I have received from Hopkins, I have been working full-time and doing all the things most fun and important to me for nearly all of this period. Given how persistent pancreatic cancer can be, it’s likely I’ll need more treatment in a future scene, and I don’t know how the movie is going to end. But no matter how the plot proceeds, I’m thrilled and grateful to have the professionals at Hopkins as the heroes walking next to me and keeping me strong.
Andrew W. Trice, Ph.D. is a pancreatic cancer survivor, husband, father of two, systems analyst, musician, and author. His book on maintaining resilience while living with cancer, Cancer Chameleon, will be published later this year.