Young Pancreatic Cancer Survivor Has High Hopes

Editors' Note: We were saddened to learn that Catherine Dimino died January 31, 2020.

close up portrait of Catherine Dimino

Pancreatic cancer survivor Catherine Dimino is hoping for a particularly special Thanksgiving this year – one spent with family, eating turkey and other holiday favorite foods. The day before Thanksgiving she is scheduled to have her last chemotherapy infusion, and what she hopes is the end of her treatment as a cancer patient. It will also mark exactly one year since she checked into the hospital with severe pancreatic and liver symptoms.

On that day last November, although she didn’t yet know that she had cancer, Dimino says she was shocked when she realized she was very ill. “I was only 29 years old,” she says, “I thought I couldn’t have anything serious wrong with me -  no way. “

Getting sicker

But something was seriously wrong with Dimino and it was going to take a long time for doctors to figure it out. When her symptoms began, she was living in Kentucky, working in the office of a racehorse organization. She developed itchy skin, which became so severe she was kept awake all night scratching. Then she began having digestive problems, including loss of appetite. She started losing weight.

Dimino delayed going to the doctor because she didn’t want to miss work. But when she became so weak she had trouble getting out of bed, she went to the emergency room. Worried about how much her health insurance would cover her medical bills, she wanted to leave the hospital, but blood tests indicated something was very wrong in her pancreas and liver, and doctors insisted she stay overnight. The next day, Dimino’s mother flew in and took her back home to Boston and Dimino checked into Massachusetts General Hospital.

For the next 6 months, Dimino went back and forth from the hospital to her parents’ home, having scans and tests and treatments. Doctors found she had a bile duct obstruction and inserted stents, but her bilirubin counts continued to rise and she became severely jaundiced, which turned her skin yellow. Her itchiness continued, and nothing could be found to control it. Eventually, Dimino was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis.

Finding cancer

In May, Dimino’s doctor attempted to insert another stent into her pancreas, but the surgery was unsuccessful. He told Dimino her only remaining option was a Whipple procedure, a surgery that removes all or part of the pancreas and nearby organs that may include parts of the small intestine, bile duct, gallbladder, lymph nodes, or stomach.

Dimino scheduled the surgery for July to give herself time, 2 months, just to relax. “I had a wonderful summer with my fiancé,” she said.

The surgery took 5 hours and Dimino spent the next 5 days in the hospital. “If a Whipple procedure could go perfectly, then mine did,” she said. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.” But when Dimino awoke from anesthesia, her doctor told her he’d found a 5 cm tumor and he was sure it was cancer. Pathology reports confirmed she had Stage IIB pancreatic adenocarcinoma that had spread to 4 of 11 lymph nodes she’d had removed.

“I was devastated, terrified, scared, and upset,” said Dimino. “To me, pancreatic cancer was a death sentence.”

But Dimino met with an oncologist who reassured her she could still be treated successfully. Her treatment would consist of an IV infusion of a strong type of chemotherapy – one day in the clinic, then 2 more days with a pump she would take home. The nurse showed Dimino’s sister how to remove the pump to save her another trip to the hospital.

One month into her chemotherapy treatment, Dimino has had a PET scan that shows no remaining cancer in her pancreas. Two spots show on her liver, but they are not necessarily cancer. “They could be anything,” said Dimino. She won’t know until she finishes treatment and gets another scan. “If those are gone, wonderful,” she says. “Things are starting to look up a little bit for me. I’m halfway through my treatment.”

Though she’s experienced nausea and fatigue from the chemo, Dimino is grateful for support from her family. She is staying in Boston with her brother and his family, and her sister goes to chemo sessions with her and makes her laugh. She also takes comfort in her dog, Lola, and has received permission to bring Lola to the infusion room. She’s hoping to finish on schedule – the day before Thanksgiving – and to feel well enough to eat some Thanksgiving food.

Looking ahead

If I can survive this, I’d like to inspire people because it’s such a hard disease to fight. I could help people because I’d know what they are going through.

Catherine Dimino

Dimino feels her experience has given her an opportunity to help others facing pancreatic cancer. “If I can survive this, I’d like to inspire people because it’s such a hard disease to fight,” she says. “I could help people because I’d know what they are going through.”

She met some nurses during her treatment who are cancer survivors themselves, and she says it meant a lot to her to hear their stories. “I kind of want to go back to school and be a nurse now,” she says. “This could be a calling.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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