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Bill Batterman is in the unusual position to be grateful for a blocked bile duct last year.
Had it not been for the scan needed to diagnose that blockage, his care team at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans’ Hospital would not have found the walnut-sized tumor Batterman had on his pancreas.
From his initial diagnosis to the expert care he received throughout chemotherapy and surgery, the 87-year-old Batterman feels blessed to have access to a highly-skilled oncology team.
“The doctors have been fabulous,” he said.
Batterman, who lives in Sun Prairie with his wife, noticed in February 2021 that something wasn’t right with his digestive system. His physician at the VA suggested he come in for testing.
Lab work and a CT scan confirmed that Batterman’s maladies were due to a bile duct obstruction, but they also found a mass on his pancreas. When surgeons placed a stent into Batterman’s bile duct, they sampled tissue from the mass and found it was malignant.
“Had I not had that bile duct problem, they wouldn’t have found the cancer,” he said.
Pancreatic cancer is notorious in that patients typically do not notice any symptoms of ill health in the earliest, most treatable stages of the disease. A significant amount of pancreatic cancer cases are not diagnosed until the advanced stages, which contributes to a low five-year survival rate. UW Carbone and UW Health are actively researching better prevention tactics and more effective treatments.
Batterman said he felt at peace as he embarked on his treatment journey, wanting to pursue his options but also accepting that whatever was to be would be.
“He had such a positive outlook,” said Dr. Sharon Weber, Chair of the Division of Surgical Oncology within UW’s Department of Surgery.
Batterman’s treatments began with a chemotherapy regimen every two weeks at the VA. He tolerated those infusions very well.
“He cruised through his chemo,” said Dr. Roberto Vidri, Complex General Surgical Oncology Fellow in the UW Department of Surgery. “He did better than many younger patients.”
In fact, Batterman’s care team believed he was healthy enough to be a candidate for the Whipple procedure in December 2021. This is a surgery that removes parts of a patient’s pancreas, stomach, bile duct and small intestine, and requires reconstruction to ensure the patient’s digestive system functions normally.
“It’s the definition of a major, complicated operation,” said Vidri.
The surgery can take up to 10 hours to complete and comes with many potential complications, including patients not surviving the surgery and those who do having prolonged digestive difficulties.
Batterman’s surgery was successful, and he was released from the hospital after less than a week. He has recovered well and enjoys a good quality of life. Still, his care team continues to monitor him regularly for a recurrence of his cancer.
“I think he’s a perfect example of age not being a limitation in pursuing aggressive treatment options,” Vidri said.
“He’s very inspiring,” Weber agreed.
Confidence in care
Batterman’s journey wasn’t completely without issues.
He had a recurrence of the bile duct blockage that stopped his chemotherapy treatments, and he almost was disqualified from the Whipple procedure when a scan showed a possible growth on his liver. A follow-up exam showed there was no issue, and the surgery could proceed.
In advance of his surgery, Weber said Batterman followed a preoperative nutrition plan and exercise routine to ensure he stayed healthy and eligible for that difficult surgery. This program is provided by a team of geriatricians, surgical oncologists, nutritionists, physical therapists, and others, to enhance outcomes after complex surgery. It is increasingly utilized at UW and the VA, and it is the subject of ongoing research.
“He did everything we asked of him, which is very difficult physically for most patients, even those much younger than Bill,” she said.
Batterman said he felt confident in how well informed he was about his treatment options and how realistic his care team was in talking about potential side effects that could seriously impact his quality of life. Still, he trusted their opinion when they said he was a good surgery candidate.
“The doctors were so positive, so confident, not trying to convince me to do it, but just to say, ‘We think it will be successful for you,’” Batterman said.
As a longtime VA patient, he also appreciated the strong cooperation UW showed with the VA to provide him with an expert oncology team.
The successful treatments and surgery have given Batterman a renewed appreciation for and commitment to his faith journey, as well as the additional time and opportunities afforded him with his family and friends. He is very thankful for these blessings in his life.