Gallbladder attack leads to cancer diagnosis
“It all started with a gallbladder attack in July 2012,” says Jose Velazquez. “It all happened very quickly. I was referred to a surgeon who performed a CT scan—and that’s when they found the tumor in the pancreas. After that, they sent me to see Dr. Maker since he specializes in gallbladder, liver and pancreatic cancer surgeries.”
Velazquez, 65, says the tumor appeared on scans taken while trying to figure out why his liver tests were elevated and why he had so much abdominal pain. Immediately, he was referred to Dr. Ajay Maker, a surgical oncologist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
“I was devastated, anxious, depressed—a little bit of everything,” Velazquez says about being told of the tumor. “At first, I was just numb. Then I started to worry.”
“My wife and family did their research, and we went prepared—as prepared as we could—to that first appointment with Dr. Maker,” he says. “After different tests were done to figure out what type of tumor it was, Dr. Maker said I needed surgery.”
The surgery removed Velazquez’s entire gallbladder, his spleen and the half of his pancreas that contained the tumor. He said his gallbladder was “filled with stones.”
Upon reviewing the pancreatic tumor under the microscope, it was discovered the tumor was malignant, but following the surgery, Dr. Maker told Jose and his family that he was able to remove everything cancerous. He says the tumor appeared to be slow growing, and had not spread past the lymph nodes surrounding the pancreas and spleen.
“Mr. Velazquez’s gallbladder attack was really a blessing in disguise,” Dr. Maker says. “If he had not had the abdominal pain and abnormal blood tests, the pancreatic tumor may not have been discovered.”
Dr. Maker says the medical team had performed a biopsy of the pancreatic tumor before surgery using an endoscopic ultrasound. However, as he says often happens, the biopsy was inconclusive. Therefore, based on a high suspicion for the lesion representing a type of pancreatic cancer, the decision was made to surgically remove the gallbladder, since it was painful and blocked from stones and, at the same time, evaluate the pancreas.
“There was a golf-ball-sized lesion in the pancreas, blocking part of his pancreatic duct that I did not recommend leaving in,” Dr. Maker says. “We removed it with the pancreas, spleen and lymph nodes. The final pathology confirmed that this was a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas, and that we were able to remove it completely with negative margins.”
These are rare and often slow-growing cancers, but once they reach this size, they can spread or metastasize, so it’s important to remove them completely, he says.
“Mr. Velazquez is such a humble and strong man. His recovery was rapid and he quickly returned to his normal life.”
“I could not have had a better experience, considering what I went through,” he says. “Dr. Maker was so kind, informative and took plenty of time with us, answering any questions or concerns that I or my family had. Dr. Maker’s staff also was very supportive. One perfect star was his nurse navigator, Megan Creech. If it wasn’t for her, I would have had a very hard time. She took care of all the appointments, tests and referrals.
“Now, I’ve got a clean bill of health,” Velazquez says. “I work out six-and-a-half hours a week and golf. I eat more vegetables and more fruit. I also eat less red meat and fried food.”
He says he’s always been a person who took care of himself, but now he pushes his healthy habits even further.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” he says. “We all need to take care of ourselves and make the best of the time we’re given.”
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