Georgia woman 'grateful' to be pancreatic cancer survivor

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Jacqueline Sims-Mayes and her daughters hug a little more freely these days, grateful for their second chance.

The 71-year old, who retired last year after 33 years at Lockheed-Martin, is now a 5-year survivor of pancreatic cancer.

The warning signs of pancreatic cancer can be vague: jaundice, weight loss, loss of appetite and belly pain.

All can be confused with other common medical problems.

That is why the Ellenwood  woman is trying to spread the word about the warning signs she almost overlooked.

"I would like to tell people to pay close attention to your body, listen to hear things," Sims-Mayes says.

Back in 2013, her husband Wendell was battling prostate cancer.

 Sims-Mayes started experiencing a pain in her side and itching all over, and she was losing weight.

"I was very fatigued," she says.  "I didn't eat a lot.  I thought all of this was because of what I was going through with my husband. I was stressed, under a lot of stress."

But when Sims-Mayes mentioned her symptoms to her doctor, her physician ordered some follow-up tests and a scan of her abdomen.

That's how they found cancer in her pancreas.

"I did not know anything," she says.  "No knowledge of pancreatic cancer. I knew about prostate cancer. I knew about breast cancer."

What she learned was grim. 

The 1-year average survival rate for people with pancreatic cancer is 28%. 

The 5-year average survival rate is just 7 percent, according to the National Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.

But, Sims-Mayes' had one thing going for her:  her cancer was caught early, before it had spread beyond her pancreas.

So, when she came to Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Newnan, where Dr. Eyal Meiri is the interim Chief of Medical Oncology, she qualified for surgery. 

Most patients don't, Dr. Meiri says.

"Maybe 20 percent of patients who walk in the door with pancreatic cancer are ones we consider for surgery," Meiri explains.  "Most of them are inoperable."

In January 2014, surgeons removed the end of her pancreas and her spleen. 

The recovery was rough.

"I thought I was literally going to die," Sims-Mayes says. "My recuperation at home was really hard. I lived day by day, with the help of the good Lord."

Dr. Meiri believes they are changing the way they approach pancreatic cancer.

He says doctors used to recommend surgery like the Whipple procedure first, and then chemotherapy.

Now, he says, oncologists are increasingly recommending the chemotherapy first, as a preemptive strike, before surgery.

The idea, he says, is to kill off any microscopic disease.

"Because, what you don't want to do is operate, do this huge Whipple, and then three months later, discover there is a spot in your liver, and we missed it," Dr. Meiri says.  "So, if you give the pre-op chemo, in theory, that spot on the liver wouldn't get the opportunity to grow."

Jacqueline Sims-Mayes wasn't sure she'd make it to 5 years. 

But, here she is.

She says she hopes her story will encourage other people to get their symptoms checked.

"See your doctor," she says.  "Follow your doctor's orders, and enjoy life."