“Here’s How I Knew I Had Pancreatic Cancer”: One Survivor’s Story After Years of Growing Clues

Updated: Apr. 14, 2024

A pancreatic cancer diagnosis can be startling. One young survivor, who battled this disease during the COVID-19 pandemic, shares how he overcame the odds: "Every day is a gift."

Pancreatic cancer, representing 3% of all cancer cases and 7% of cancer-related deaths in the US, is a serious health concern, as highlighted by the American Cancer Society. In 2024, it’s projected that nearly 66,440 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with a tragic estimate of 51,750 individuals succumbing to the disease in that same timeframe.

Tucked away behind the stomach, the pancreas might be small, but its role in the body is critical. It aids in food digestion through enzyme production and regulates blood sugar levels with insulin. Yet, its discreet location often means that this cancer remains asymptomatic until advanced stages, making vigilance and regular medical check-ups essential—and as with all cancer, it’s better to catch it early.

“A small lesion in the pancreas without invasion of the surrounding blood vessels, lymph nodes, or other organs is stage 1,” shares Nadine Mikhaeel, MD, Medical Director of Oncology for AdventHealth RMR. “Be alert to the symptoms and signs and seek medical attention early,” she adds.

Key pancreatic cancer symptoms to watch for include:

  • Upper abdominal pain that radiates to the back

  • Nausea

  • Decreased appetite

  • Rapid weight loss

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes

  • Dark urine

  • Abdominal swelling

  • Changes in bowel movements.

For individuals with a higher risk due to genetic predispositions or a family history of pancreatic cancer, Dr. Mikhaeel points out that screenings such as endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) and MRI/magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP) should begin at age 50, or a decade earlier than the first diagnosis in a family member. Lifestyle factors such as tobacco and alcohol consumption, high-calorie diets, chronic pancreatitis, and diabetes also play a role in the disease’s incidence.

Amid these statistics and warnings, we share the inspiring journey of Bryan, a 28-year-old from the Denver metro area, whose life was irrevocably altered by a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Bryan’s story is not just one of resilience and strength, but a reminder of the importance of heeding the early warnings of this insidious disease.

How I knew I had pancreatic cancer

By Bryan Jump, as told to Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO

The doctors thought it was everything but cancer.

For years, I battled with severe abdominal pain and persistent vomiting episodes. During my college years, even moderate drinking resulted in hours of sickness the following day, a reaction that puzzled me since I wasn’t a big drinker. The pain became so debilitating at one point that I found myself hospitalized. The diagnosis? Peptic ulcers, attributed to stress. The prescribed pain medication offered temporary relief, but it was merely a band-aid solution to a problem that was far more complex than I or the doctors realized at the time.

In 2019, when I was 23, these all-too-familiar symptoms resurfaced with a vengeance. Faced with the grim realities of inadequate health insurance, I endured the suffering in silence. The cost of care was a barrier too great to cross, leading me to dismiss urgent pleas from those around me to seek help. “Don’t take me to the ER unless you find me unconscious,” I would say half-jokingly, yet fully aware of the financial burden such a visit would impose. This cycle of pain and reluctance continued until my mother insisted I get checked out.

What followed was a relentless six- to seven-week pursuit of answers through a maze of medical tests and procedures. Blood work, CT scans, MRIs, and more painted a picture that confused even seasoned medical professionals. A mass on my pancreas hinted at a possible cause. However the notion of cancer, particularly at my age, was dismissed outright—it “must be a cyst,” they said.

It wasn’t until a biopsy was conducted in April 2020, when I was 24, that the true nature of my condition was revealed. That’s how I knew I had pancreatic cancer: Specifically acinar cell carcinoma, a rare form of pancreatic cancer affecting fewer than 1,000 individuals worldwide each year.

The revelation brought a mix of shock and profound fear, yet it also provided a sense of relief. For the first time in years, there was a clear enemy and a plan of attack. I remember thinking, “OK, I know what my next steps are. I know how we’re moving forward with this.”

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Pancreatic cancer treatment during the COVID-19 global pandemic

After I knew I had pancreatic cancer, I underwent an aggressive trio of chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. The intensity of the chemo also included a continuous infusion pump hooked to my chest, slowly administering a potent drug known as 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) over two to three days. (I remember making a light-hearted comment to my oncology nurse about the name, saying, “That’s a lot of FU’s,” which, in a way, summed up my feelings toward the entire ordeal.) The side effects were harsh, with a severe sensitivity to cold, making even a sip of cold water painful, along with relentless nausea that led to daily bouts of vomiting.

Surgery followed the initial chemotherapy, a procedure that claimed my entire pancreas, gallbladder, spleen, and 45 lymph nodes that had gone from my belly button up to my throat.

On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic added a layer of isolation to the whole situation, restricting the support I could receive. I had to do my chemo treatments leading up to my surgery alone, but thanks to my surgeon’s understanding, my parents were able to be with me after the surgery.

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I continued to fight after I knew I had pancreatic cancer

I emerged from the surgery not only physically diminished but also facing a new reality as a “brittle diabetic,” a condition characterized by a complete lack of blood sugar regulation because of the removal of my pancreas. I wasn’t just suffering from no insulin production like a type 1 diabetic—I was dealing with no blood sugar regulation whatsoever.

The aftermath of surgery, plus an additional couple months of chemo, introduced me to a cycle of nausea, blood sugar crashes, gastroparesis, and significant weight loss—I dropped to 94 pounds—but I continued to fight fueled by the unwavering love and support from the people around me.

The final stages of my treatment unfolded with three months of radiation in early 2021, marking the end of my scheduled therapy and the beginning of a new challenge: Piecing together my life in the aftermath of a tumultuous fight with pancreatic cancer.

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A special companion on the road to recovery

When I first started chemo after I knew I had pancreatic cancer, I daydreamed about getting a dog as a way to celebrate the completion of my treatments. After my pancreas was removed from the surgery, my mother suggested getting a diabetic alert dog.

Embracing her advice, I soon welcomed a furry friend into my life. Research has shown pets can do wonders for human health. This remarkable dog became a source of comfort and motivation and was deemed medically necessary, allowing her to accompany me to my chemo sessions during the pandemic.

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Where I stand now: Hold on to faith…every day is a gift

It has been three years since doctors declared no evidence of disease. My specific diagnosis carries a prognosis that, as far as my knowledge, has not seen anyone surpassing an eight-year survival mark. I have faith that I’m going to beat that number. My hope and prayer is that I’m not the anomaly but that I’m one of the first and that other people with this diagnosis will end up surpassing that number, as well.

Recovering from any difficult experience is not a linear process. Some days, I feel like I have fallen farther behind than the ground I’ve gained. The after-effects of my battle—digestive issues, diabetes, PTSD, and the fog of “chemo brain”—are constant reminders of what I’ve endured. Yet, they also serve as markers of my strength, of the life I continue to live and cherish. Cancer doesn’t let you easily forget that every day is a gift.

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I have one final piece of advice…

If you’re dealing with a difficult diagnosis, allow yourself to lean into the people who love you. Remember, you are not a burden—those who care for you are eager to offer strength when yours wanes.

That sometimes means literally. I’m a person of fierce faith, and several times, I showed up to my church after chemo sessions. Some of my best friends would lock arms with me and hold me up so I could stand when I didn’t have the strength to.

And that, I think, is such a beautiful picture of what it looks like to walk through cancer with someone.

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