Rob Francoeur, retired Chief Master Sergeant in the United States Airforce, shares his experience at the University of Colorado Cancer Center after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Rob in Moab.

I have been asked to share my story of being a very fortunate survivor of pancreatic cancer. At the time I am writing this I am one year out from my last treatment and have had all “clean” check-ups!

My story starts back in 2006 when I was active duty Air Force stationed in Omaha, Nebraska. I had gone in for my annual physical and when the doctor pressed on my abdomen, I came up off the exam table in pain. He ran some blood tests which showed elevated pancreatic enzymes. He retested me a week later and the enzymes were down, but I still had the pain. I was referred to a gastroenterologist who diagnosed me as having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which I was treated for going forward. I still had the abdominal pain if pressure was put on my abdomen. I have an extended history of back issues, so the typical back pain associated with pancreatic cancer was not an indication in my case.

In February 2015, while driving home from work I started having chest and abdominal pains. I started wondering if I was having a heart attack, but I didn’t have any of the other warning signs. I quickly saw my primary care provider who ruled out a heart attack and gave me referrals to see a gastroenterologist and a cardiologist. After several cardiac tests any possible issue with my heart were ruled out. 

Still having the abdominal pain, my gastroenterologist ran what seemed to be every possible test under the sun with no insight to what was causing my pain. From time to time my blood work would show elevated pancreatic enzymes. Unfortunately, when they were rechecked, they would be normal again. One day my gastroenterologist said that the next time I had an episode of pain to go get a blood test done and if my pancreatic enzymes were elevated, she would refer me to UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital to see a doctor who did Upper GIs (EGDs) with ultrasound to look at my pancreas. I asked her why we were waiting when I have been dealing with this for two and a half years and we have no idea what is causing my pain? She agreed to refer me to see Dr. Raj Shah at the hospital.

When I saw Dr. Shah, he intently looked at my last negative MRI and said “I don’t necessarily agree it is a negative MRI. I don’t see a mass, but something doesn’t look right.” He went on to say he wanted to do the EGD with ultrasound to get a better look, so we scheduled it for April 14, 2017 (Good Friday).

It was not a “Good Friday” in the least. When I woke up in recovery after the procedure Dr. Shah came in and pulled up a chair next to the bed (never a good sign when they do that) and said “I never expected to find what I did during your procedure. I found a mass on your pancreas and I am referring you to surgery.”

To say I was in shock is an understatement. I didn’t say a single word to my friend who had brought me to the appointment until we got out to his truck in the parking garage. I said, “I have pancreatic cancer!” Needless to say, the ride home was pretty quiet. Since I am single and live alone, he was not sure if he should leave me by myself. I reassured him I would be fine and if I wasn’t, I would call for help.

Now I had to tell my family in Connecticut, Georgia, and here in Colorado what I just found out. Not an easy thing to do over the phone. Luckily everyone was supportive and positive in supporting me in my journey to fight my cancer aggressively.

The following week I was contacted by the University of Colorado Cancer Center’s Pancreas and Biliary Multidisciplinary Clinic and set up with an all-day appointment that week which included blood tests, a CT scan, counseling, and finally a meeting with Dr. Richard Schulick, MD, MBA, Director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center, and my surgeon. The Pancreas and Biliary Multidisciplinary Clinic uses a team approach to treating each patient. A team of doctors and specialists meet to review the patients test results and develop an individualized plan of treatment. Dr. Schulick explained the results of all my tests and the team’s recommendation. The recommendation was to perform a Distal Pancreatectomy which was quickly scheduled for May 1, 2017, as I did not want to delay and allow the mass to grow. 

Surgery went well and I could not have asked for a better surgical team than Dr. Schulick and his team. I was released from the hospital ten days after surgery and continued to maintain a positive state of mind. I met with Dr. Regina Brown at the UCHealth Cancer Care Clinic – Lone Tree in early June 2017 to discuss my upcoming chemotherapy treatment. Dr. Brown and I hit it off from the start as we were both prior Air Force. She explained my chemo treatment would entail infusions once a week for three weeks and one week off for six months (18 treatments total). My chemo treatments started in July and ran until December 2017. 

I truly believe the awesome medical staff at UCHealth Cancer Care Clinic – Lone Tree, led by RN Jill, helped me get through my chemo treatments. From the MAs to the RNs they are all “true professionals” working in a tough field making things more tolerable for those of us who have to be treated.

During my initial visit with Dr. Brown, she told me about a clinical trial that was looking at the benefits of combining radiation therapy with chemotherapy for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. She asked if I had ever consider participating in a clinical trial and I said sure! If I could possibly help myself and others in the future, I was willing to try it.

I met with Dr. Karyn Goodman, MD, former Associate Director for Clinical Research at the CU Cancer Center, but I was not a candidate for the clinical trial as it was focused on another part of the pancreas from where my cancer was located. Even though I wasn’t a candidate for Dr. Goodman’s clinical trial, she told me there had been other studies done showing positive results of combining radiation therapy with chemotherapy, so I elected to do radiation therapy in addition to my chemotherapy.

My radiation therapy was done at the UCHealth TomoTherapy Cancer Care Clinic – Lone Tree and entailed daily treatments five days a week for five and a half weeks (28 treatments). Valentine’s Day will always have a new meaning to me as that was the day of my last radiation treatment. The staff at the center was awesome and made my experience less stressful.

My Takeaways and Suggestions for Others:

  • First and foremost, keep a positive attitude and surround yourself with positive people who will support you in your fight to beat the cancer.
    • You can reconnect with those that are not supportive of your way of fighting the cancer when you are done.
  • We did not ask to have cancer, but we cannot back up to the “Y” in the road called life and go the other direction this time to change things! 
    • In other words, do not stress over something you cannot change. Accept what life has handed you and charge forward giving it all you can and fight it.
  • If you have the misfortune of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, there is no better place in Colorado to be treated than CU Cancer Center’s Pancreas and Biliary Multidisciplinary Clinic and associated Cancer Care Clinics.
  • You are your best advocate and know your body best. If something does not seem right, have it checked out and do not give up until they figure out what is wrong.
  • Last, but by far not the least, no matter your faith belief, have faith that you will make it through this!