Pancreatic Cancer Survivor Creates ‘Cycle of Positive Energy’

Written By:Stacy Simon

When Steven Lewis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 58, he and his wife fought against fear and denial and came up with a plan to be as positive as possible. Even though they didn’t know whether Lewis would survive his cancer, they looked for silver linings and clung to any hope they could find.

When Lewis began treatment, he started writing a blog to keep family and friends informed of his progress. On bad days as well as good, Lewis says he always came up with something uplifting to write about. And overall, he resisted the temptation to complain.

“What I got back was tremendous emotional support. It was a conscious decision to be positive and not complain,” said Lewis. “If I complained there would be a limit to who would support me, because other people have their own problems too. You can’t wear out your support group because you need that group to lift you up and give you energy.”

As it turned out, Lewis would need all the energy he could get.

‘Big-time stuff’

Lewis first realized he was sick one day in August, 2007 when his wife and son noticed his face, neck, and the whites of his eyes were yellow. He went to the doctor, who scheduled a series of scans and biopsies. He was diagnosed with pancreatic adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that begins in the ducts of the pancreas. He began a rigorous course of treatment that included a Whipple procedure, an extensive surgery that removes parts of the pancreas, bile duct, and small intestine, and sometimes other nearby organs. During the next 8 months he also had radiation and chemotherapy.

“Many people who’ve had Whipple surgery are left with problems that are life-long, but I’ve been lucky,” said Lewis. “I haven’t had resounding problems, but it takes a very long time for the body to recover from the surgery. There are psychological as well as physical implications. It’s big-time stuff.”

Lewis spent the next few years regaining his strength and returning to work. Then in May 2010, during a routine checkup at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, doctors found a tumor in his liver. They were reluctant to recommend a treatment for fighting the cancer recurrence because they didn’t think it would be successful. Lewis didn’t know it at the time, but no one at that hospital had ever survived pancreatic cancer that had come back in the liver.

“I refused to accept it. I said, ‘I want treatment that’s bold, aggressive, decisive, and rapid,’” said Lewis. The hospital’s tumor board met to discuss Lewis’ case and decided to take a chance on treatment. A PET scan showed the tumor had not spread outside the liver, which meant it could be surgically removed.

But a few days after the surgery, Lewis developed a serious liver infection. He was very ill for several months, and by the time he was well enough to undergo chemotherapy, the window had closed – chemotherapy would likely no longer be helpful in lowering the risk the cancer would come back again. Lewis had scan after scan to check, and luckily has not had another recurrence. Lewis once again began the long road to recovery.

‘I’m very, very lucky.’

"I decided to deal with it in the most positive way and people respected that. It created a cycle of positive energy that came back to me and lifted me through times ahead."

Steven Lewis

Today, 5 years after his liver tumor was removed, Lewis says he is 100% healthy. “I’m very, very lucky to have survived this in an intact way to be able to live an entirely normal life.” Other than a medicine to help with digestion, Lewis says he’s just like anyone else. He eats normally and lives an active life, working out at the gym 3 or 4 times a week and working full-time as a college professor. He says he has always been very physically fit and active and that has gotten him through the big surgeries.

Lewis has written a book about his experience. In it, he credits his successful outcome to “the tremendous source of uplifting support” from his wife and children, and his refusal to get dragged into despair.

“I decided to deal with it in the most positive way and people respected that,” said Lewis. “It made people stop and think about how they could be positive about their own problems. It became contagious. It created a cycle of positive energy that came back to me and lifted me through times ahead.”

Lewis says the experience has given him a perspective on life he never could have had before. “After having pancreatic cancer, you really can’t complain about the normal stuff. Minor disappointments have no meaning. Most of that stuff just melts away.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

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