A Cyclist’s Long Road to Recovery After Pancreatic Cancer

6 min read

A Cyclist’s Long Road to Recovery After Pancreatic Cancer

As a long-distance cyclist, Joseph V. has always maintained his good health. Besides having his tonsils out as a toddler, he had never faced a serious medical procedure. When ankle problems started to affect his cycling, Joseph knew he needed surgery but kept putting it off. Only when abdominal pain struck in February 2019 did he go to his local emergency room in Pueblo to get checked out.

Providers noticed his pancreas was inflamed, so they diagnosed Joseph with pancreatitis and sent him to the hospital. The cause of the inflammation was unclear, and his symptoms subsided. Joseph was discharged from the hospital a few days later.

Joseph V, Vallee, and one of their five fur babies, SquirmyLife went on. On June 1, 2019, Joseph married Vallee, his girlfriend of 14 years. Two months into their marriage, the pain returned. Joseph looked yellow – a symptom of severe pancreatitis. Vallee took him to the ER again. This time, imaging scans detected tumors. Further testing determined Joseph had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

“That was quite a shock,” Joseph said. “But when I got the diagnosis, Vallee looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You’re going to beat this,’ and I believed her.”

The First Meeting

When cancer spreads beyond its original location to other organs or tissue, it’s considered stage 4, the most advanced stage. Joseph’s cancer had reached nearby lymph nodes and his lungs. According to the American Cancer Society, his likelihood of surviving stage 4 pancreatic cancer for five years was 3%.

Still reeling from his diagnosis, Joseph met Dr. Muath Dawod, board-certified oncologist and hematologist at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers (RMCC). Dr. Dawod explained that he would be caring for Joseph and that he needed to begin chemotherapy as soon as possible. Ankle surgery and cycling would have to wait.

Joseph didn’t know what to think. He’d never met an oncologist before. He didn’t even know Pueblo had a cancer center. Joseph and Vallee spent a lot of time praying over his treatment and trusted that RMCC was where he needed to be.

Any lingering doubts faded once Joseph walked into RMCC for his first treatment in September 2019.

“Everyone there – the front desk staff, nurses, scheduling, and physicians – they’re all so good to work with,” he said. “Everyone at RMCC is uplifting. They’re there to help people get through cancer and recover, and that was obvious from day one.”

That caring attitude mattered to Joseph because he knew the road to being cancer-free would not be easy. His aggressive cancer required intense therapy that would continue for years.

Intensive Therapy Regimen

Every other Wednesday for two years, Joseph visited the Pueblo RMCC for a two-hour chemotherapy session. He wore a chemotherapy pump for another 46 hours when he returned home.

Following nearly two days of nonstop chemotherapy, an exhausted Joseph slept almost all day Saturday and Sunday.

The following week, he was back at RMCC from Monday to Wednesday. During these visits, he received a shot to rebuild the white blood cell count that chemotherapy knocked down. A week later, the process started again.

“Special recognition for the RMCC treatment nurses,” Joseph said. “They have a way of making their patients feel comfortable even during difficult treatments. I think they are all truly angels.”

As can happen with chemotherapy, Joseph experienced side effects. He had neuropathy in his hands, feet, and mouth, a condition that makes you feel weak and numb. One medication caused a lot of pain. His equilibrium got thrown off, and he had brain fog, a condition known as chemo brain. Doctors adjusted Joseph’s medications to reduce side effects and prescribed a steroid.

“A CT scan showed that the tumors in my pancreas and lymph nodes were shrinking,” he said. “But the lung tumors were still the same size.”

Dr. Dawod wanted a closer look at the lung tumors, so he ordered a biopsy. A surgeon removed two of nearly 20 tumors in Joseph’s lungs. The surgical team had good news.

“My lung cancer was totally gone!” Joseph said.

The finish line was inching nearer as Joseph completed chemotherapy in October 2021, but his journey wasn’t over yet.

Surgery and Support

To reduce the risk of Joseph’s cancer returning, Dr. Dawod wanted the tumors in Joseph’s lymph nodes and pancreas removed. On March 24, 2022, Joseph traveled to Denver for the procedure. Along with the pancreas tumor, a surgeon removed nine lymph nodes into which the cancer had spread. It was a complicated, invasive procedure but also a success.

Joseph V. at RMCC the day he learned he was cancer-freeWhen tested, all the lymph nodes and tumors removed during the surgery showed no sign of cancer. More than two years after diagnosis, Joseph was cancer-free, a remarkable feat for someone with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

From Joseph’s perspective, divine guidance played a role, as did his care team at RMCC.

“How do you know that a doctor is good? You don’t until that doctor cares for you,” Joseph said. “I prayed a lot and asked for guidance because I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I believe God pointed me in the right direction: to Dr. Dawod and RMCC.” 

Joseph was also helped by a positive attitude. Thanks to his supportive wife, he never gave up hope. Instead, he maintained that he would beat cancer, as Vallee assured Joseph at his diagnosis. In his eyes, Vallee’s constant support is yet another reason why cancer is getting smaller in his rearview mirror.

“My wife has been incredible,” Joseph said. “Chemotherapy and surgery affect you mentally, emotionally, and physically. She was there by my side the whole time. She recognized when I was struggling and would hold me until I felt better.”

Looking for Answers

Thinking back on his journey, Joseph remains baffled. He has no history of cancer on either side of his family tree. His parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others never dealt with the disease. He spent years cycling for long distances and exercising. The only risk factor Joseph has identified is his diet.

“We ate fried chicken every Tuesday,” he said. “I don’t know if that caused the problem, but fatty foods and sugars are the hardest things for the pancreas to digest.”

Whatever the cause of his cancer, the fried chicken didn’t help with his recovery. Joseph removed it from his weekly diet. He also made other nutritional changes that are helping him feel better as he approaches his 72nd birthday in November 2022. While he still needs to fix his ankles, he plans to return to the bike saddle soon.

In the meantime, he’s content. He has a loving wife, children, and grandchildren he adores, and a new perspective.

“I grew up with the idea that the good life is working your way up in a company, making more money, and buying a big house,” Joseph said. “Now I realize that stuff isn’t important. What matters is people – building relationships and doing what you can to help them.”

Thanks to Dr. Dawod and the team at RMCC, Joseph expects he’ll have plenty more time to do just that.

For excellent cancer care close to home, request an appointment at your local Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers location.