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Pancreatic Cancer Survivor Embraces ‘New Normal’

Article date: October 22, 2013

Russ Carlson - Stories of Hope

"If I can help just one person, it makes it all worthwhile. I became a survivor the day I had surgery, meaning I had another day to live. But you have to live it with a purpose, so I try to go out there and help as many people as I can."

 

Pancreatic cancer survivor Russ Carlson says he thoroughly enjoys life, even though a lot has changed. In 2000, Carlson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had a 2% chance of living for just 3 more years. That was 13 years ago.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me why I survived,” said Carlson. “I’m a strong believer in a positive attitude. I’m a persistent and determined individual. When the doctor told me my prognosis, I said, ‘Well, you just count me in on that number because someone’s got to be in there.’”

Carlson initially went to the doctor because of a pain under his left ribcage that spread around to his back and just wouldn’t go away. A CT scan revealed a tumor pressing on his spleen. Surgeons removed Carlson’s spleen, part of his pancreas and left kidney, and 5 lymph nodes. He underwent 5 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation that left him sick and weak. Then, when it finally was over, Carlson’s doctor said he needed another round of chemo. Carlson said he just couldn’t go through it again. But after thinking it over for a couple of weeks, he finally agreed. Fortunately, the second round was less punishing.

“There were many times I wanted to quit with chemo, but I didn’t give up,” said Carlson. “I made a plan when I got home from the hospital to get out of the house every day. I tell people, ‘Don’t sit at home, because you’ll talk yourself into depression. Surround yourself with people.’”

These days, Carlson has yearly scans to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back. He takes 41 pills a day, every day, for many of the long-term side effects resulting from his treatment, including neuropathy (nerve damage) and diabetes.

And he devotes much of his spare time to helping other people newly diagnosed with cancer. About a year ago, Carlson found WhatNext, an online support network developed with the participation of the American Cancer Society that matches users with peers and resources. Carlson receives 2 or more emails a day through the site, from caregivers and patients with newly diagnosed pancreatic cancer. They ask him questions about how he dealt with side effects from treatment and participate in discussions with him on the site.

“If I can help just one person, it makes it all worthwhile,” said Carlson, “I became a survivor the day I had surgery, meaning I had another day to live. But you have to live it with a purpose, so I try to go out there and help as many people as I can.“

In addition, Carlson volunteers at his local Gilda’s Club in New Jersey, which provides support for people diagnosed with cancer and their families. Carlson and his family also participate in fundraising walks and golf tournaments in their local communities.

“My advice for people is to try to embrace their new normal life,” said Carlson.” You’re not going to go back to the way your life was. Some things are definitely going to change. If you accept that, you’ll be so much more comfortable. I thoroughly enjoy my life.”