Claudia McCormick hopes to someday be the world's longest living pancreatic cancer survivor.
She's got the battle scars to prove it. Two rounds of abdominal surgery left her with an incision she proudly describes as "a map of Route 66.”
The Beloit woman also wants to use her hard-won wisdom to inspire others faced with the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
"I want to help other people and let them know to get a second opinion," she says. "I would be dead right now if I hadn't followed my instinct.”
"Claudia's story is one that all of us want to be able to tell more — she is an amazing woman with resilience and fortitude, who agreed to all of our recommended aggressive treatments for pancreas cancer, and because of this, she has beaten the odds," says Weber. "She has an incredible multidisciplinary team of doctors helping her through this, but the victory is all hers.”
Both McCormick and Weber want to increase the odds of surviving pancreatic cancer, so they are supporting the Aug. 12 "Roll and Stroll,” to support pancreatic-cancer research at UW Carbone Cancer Center. The event includes 50- and 10-kilometer bike rides, a two-mile walk, as well as music and family fun at Capital Brewery in Middleton.
McCormick's journey began in the fall of 2016, when she noticed some vague early symptoms. She felt tired; her skin was itchy and slightly yellow. Her doctor wasn't sure what was wrong; that's when McCormick's survival instinct kicked in the first time.
"I asked her to check my liver enzymes and I didn't even know what liver enzymes were, she says. They came back high. A follow-up ultrasound and biopsy revealed a tumor about one and a half inches big in the head of her pancreas. The diagnosis was stage 1B adenoma carcinoma.
After three months of FOLFIRINOX, a combination of five chemotherapy drugs, in March 2017, a surgeon at a community hospital attempted to do a Whipple procedure to remove the head of the pancreas, the gallbladder, bile duct, and parts of the stomach and small intestine.
But when the surgeon opened her up, he decided he couldn't safely operate.
While McCormick was still unconscious, the surgeon gathered her family. McCormick heard the verdict herself, later.
"He said there was nothing he or anyone could do and that I had months to live," she says. "He basically wrote me off.”
McCormick, a mother of two grown sons and a grandmother of one, began putting her affairs in order. She got very depressed. But then she got mad.
"He's not God, and not going to tell me when it's time to go," she says.
Family and friends rallied around her. Her partner, Al, who had lost a wife to colon cancer, became her "best angel," cooking and caring for her. Her sisters and brother-in-law chipped in with support from afar, and lots of Internet research on her disease.
"I wanted to show them that their support was really meaningful," she says. "Knowing how much they were doing for me, I couldn't just give up and die.”
She asked her medical oncologist to look into clinical trials, and she began another round of oral chemotherapy along with external beam radiation.
Her younger sister found supplements that she believes helped her body heal, including high dose CBD oil, Frankincense oil, turkey tail mushroom and a Chinese remedy called "bitter melon,” among others.
Finally, in late August 2017, she came to the UW Carbone Cancer Center, where Weber met with her to discuss her case. McCormick was impressed.
"She has this aura about her that is really serene, and these beautiful long fingers," McCormick recalled. Weber was willing to attempt another Whipple procedure, although she told McCormick her odds of being able to complete the operation were only about 50-50.
So when McCormick woke up after surgery in November 2017, her first question was: "Did it happen?”
"When I heard yes, I started crying," McCormick remembers.
The biopsy showed that the tumor had shrunk and had been completely removed. Since then, two scans have shown her clear of cancer. Her CA 19-9 number, which measures antigens in the blood released by tumor cells, fell from 535 at diagnosis to 35 after treatment to 13, well in the normal range, at her last check-up.
"Now I have a second chance at life, and I want to get out there and help other people," she says. "I tell them: You have to fight. You also need a support system. I couldn't do it alone and no one else can, either.”
She recommends the information and support available at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). Her brother-in-law found the site, and through it, she found Weber.
McCormick is getting involved in advocacy for more funding for pancreas cancer research and volunteers with UW's Pancreas Cancer Task Force – made up of patients, community leaders, family members, and caretakers dedicated to funding pancreas cancer research at UW's Carbone Cancer Center.
Years ago, during her corporate career, she was inspired by motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and wanted to use that passion to help others.
"Since I have a second chance at life, I now have that chance to help others overcome the odds and beat this disease," she says. "If I'm not helping someone every day, then I'm not doing enough. This, I feel absolute passionate about. I can't waste a day!”