Facing pancreatic cancer, Georgia veteran finds hope

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It's been almost a year since Jerry Keefer found hope in the darkest of places.

"Divine intervention is what I call it," Keefer says, looking back on his journey.

"Divine," because the 66-year old former Army sergeant turned law enforcement officer can't really explain why he might be on the brink of beating a cancer 90 percent of people don't survive beyond five years. 

Keefer, married nearly 30 years to his wife Kay and the father of two sons, went to the doctor just after a 2018 July Fourth weekend trip. He had been feeling tired, losing weight, and his stomach was hurting. His skin and eyes had also taken on a yellowish color.

"The doctor ran some tests and she said, 'You need to go to the ER right away,'" Keefer says.  "So, I went to Piedmont Henry (Hospital)."

After more tests and a biopsy, Keefer was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The more he read about it, the worse he felt.

There is no early screening tool for pancreatic cancer. So, it's usually diagnosed later, once it's already begun to spread beyond the pancreas. About 45,000 to 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and 40,000 will die from it.

"I just accepted I'm not going to be around much longer," Keefer says.

But when he met Dr. Andrew Page, director of liver, pancreas and cancer surgery for Piedmont Healthcare, Keefer says everything began to change.

"He said, 'You know what, you're a good candidate for surgery; you've got a good chance of beating this,'" Keefer remembers. 

Keefer's cancer was stage 2B, meaning it may have spread from the pancreas to the tissue or lymph nodes around it.

"What we worry about with pancreatic cancer is micro metastatic disease," Page says. "That is that there is microscopic cancer outside to the tumor that we can't see."

So, Page recommended something that just a few years ago might have been considered radical.

Instead of immediately removing the tumor, Page asked Keefer to wait for four months to give them time to do chemotherapy to kill any of the cancer cells that had escaped from his pancreas.

"That's hard," Page says. "When I was in training, you didn't treat pancreatic cancer that way. You were diagnosed, and you came to the operating room, you took it out."

Page, who treats about 70 to 100 pancreatic cancer patients with his partner at Piedmont Healthcare, believed the chemo-first approach would give Keefer a better chance of beating his cancer. Keefer underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy.

Then, on Jan. 7, 2019, Dr. Page performed a Whipple procedure, removing part of Keefer's pancreas, small intestine, bile ducts, and stomach. As soon as he recovered, Keefer went through two more months of chemotherapy to kill off any remaining cancer cells. He lost 30 pounds.

"It was pretty rough, but I got through it," Keefer says.

Seven months out from his surgery, Keefer's wait seems to be paying off.

"Jerry is doing great," Page says. "He's about a year out from his original diagnosis. The longer he can get, the less likely he will have a recurrence."

Keefer says he's living day by day, grateful for everything he has.

"I would say, stay strong, be positive and never give up," Keefer says. "Never give up."