Jean Meisenheimer is a determined, decisive 62- year-old-woman, a woman of action. Ten years ago, in May of 2005, she noticed a yellowing of her skin. This rang a bell with her since there is a history of pancreatic cancer in her family. Jean immediately went to her primary care doctor. A simple blood test found that her CA 19-9 levels were very high, indicating there might possibly be a chance that she had cancer cells in her body. Jean’s primary care doctor quickly sent her to a gastroenterologist, who performed additional tests and found that there was a tumor on her pancreas.
Quickly, arrangements were made for Jean to meet with Dr. Ronald Salem, Lapman Professor of Surgery and Section Chief of Surgical Oncology at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. “Dr. Salem told me I needed surgery,” said Jean. “He recommended a Whipple procedure that would take out the head of my pancreas. As I was listening to him talk, all I really saw were his hands. He has such beautiful hands and I said to myself, ‘this is the doctor I want to operate on me’.”
But Jean strongly believes in being proactive, in researching and getting her own information, so that she can make informed decisions. “As impressed as I was with Dr. Salem’s skilled hands,” recalls Jean, “I wanted to be sure I had the best doctor and the best hospital. I am blessed with caring, loving friends, including, Dr. Bob Russo, a radiologist in Fairfield. He became my initial source of information. He told me that the best doctors dealing with pancreatic cancer in his opinion could be found at Johns Hopkins, the University of Pittsburgh, Mass General, and Yale. My research confirmed that Dr. Salem is one of a few surgeons in Connecticut with a high volume practice performing the Whipple procedure and that he is passionate about integrating the latest techniques to improve the lives of his patients with cancer. I took the time to make phone calls to specialists in the other cancer centers … calls that made it easier for me to make my decision. All the advice was the same: ‘Stay in New Haven. Your surgeon is very competent. Yale also is a great Cancer Center. There is no need for you to go elsewhere. But you need to act fast. The quicker you have the surgery the better outcome you will have.’ It turned out to be very good advice. The first time the doctors observed my tumor, it measured ½ centimeter. Three weeks later when I had the surgery, it was 1½ centimeters, so there was no doubt that it was growing really fast.”
“Dr. Salem explained that I was facing major surgery and would have to spend two weeks in the hospital. But my niece was getting married in July so I wanted to put off the operation until after the wedding. Dr. Salem said I could not wait. I needed to be operated on as soon as possible.”
“I had the Whipple surgery, with amazing results. I had no aftereffects. I had excellent care at Yale. The wonderful ICU nurses came in immediately after the surgery to get me out of bed. And the pain management people were so kind. I also am blessed with thoughtful friends who came to care for me while I was in the hospital. Even Dr. Salem was surprised that I was able to leave the hospital five days after my operation. And. amazingly enough, 10 days after my surgery, I danced at my niece’s wedding.
“Since my pancreatic cancer was Stage IIIB and my lymph nodes were involved, my Yale medical oncologist, Dr. Johanna LaSala, recommended six months of chemotherapy. What was prescribed was a treatment every week for three weeks and then I’d have one week off. The chemotherapy was very was difficult. I had the typical symptoms. Nausea. Vomiting. I lost all my hair. It was really rough. But I survived it.”
“The hardest thing I had to do was tell my mother. My father had passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2001 and it was most difficult to share the news with her that I had been diagnosed as well. She was living here in Florida but came to Connecticut and was with me during the surgery. She was very upset.”
Jean’s amazing optimism helped her through her most challenging times. “I looked at this as just a bump in the road. Even on my sickest days, I tried to think positively and to find joy in being alive. Meditation and yoga helped me keep a positive focus on my life. Prayer helped too. My two sons, Daniel and James, graduated from Fairfield Prep years ago and those priests were praying for me. James was at Providence College and he had the priests praying too. So I had a lot of people praying. I told everybody. ‘Don’t pray for me. Pray for Dr. Salem. Pray for the staff that is going to pull me through this.’”
“I have no regrets. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I was lucky because my symptoms for pancreatic cancer were visible. Being jaundiced was a blessing. Most people spend weeks trying to find out what is wrong. I immediately went to my primary care doctor who made the appointment for the tests I needed. If I had called on my own it would have taken weeks. With the doctors calling directly to make the appointments I was seen the next day. We didn’t lose any time.”
Today Jean lives full time in Naples, Florida. But she still comes back to the Smilow Cancer Care Center in Orange for her checkups and to see her doctors. “It’s very important to me not to give up my doctors at Yale. Even though I seldom see Dr. Salem, I think of him and all the patients he is helping every day. I have a very active life. It’s been almost ten years since I was diagnosed and I’ve made it to age 60. I’ve had a chance to live life the way I wanted to. I’m in the best place and am enjoying myself.”
Jean’s advice for others: “Be strong in your own values. Try to be happy with whatever is thrown at you. Take it as a blessing and as a learning experience. Whether you live or die, you need to make the best of the situation. Have faith in yourself and in your doctors to pull you through it. Try to appreciate each and every day.”