“I’ve got nothing but time—ask all the questions you need.” It’s not exactly what I expected to hear from a man who’s been diagnosed with cancer twice. But that’s what Ken Abernathy from Forney, Texas, told me.
The first time he heard “you have cancer,” it was 1996. He had non-Hodgkin lymphoma that had spread to his bone marrow.
“First thing that comes to mind is, ‘How am I going to take care of my family? I’ve got a son, he’s still in high school, am I gonna see my son graduate from high school?’” says Abernathy. He was 44 years old and worked as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. He was happily married to his wife, Linda, with a 16-year-old son, John.
Eight months of intensive chemotherapy nearly kicked the cancer, though he received occasional follow-up treatments. But trouble struck again in 2013, when Abernathy was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He felt devastated, but also annoyed. After 17 years, he had accepted cancer’s place in his life. Now, pancreatic cancer? That’s an entirely different animal than non-Hodgkin lymphoma—a much more menacing one.
“I knew my death was not imminent with the non-Hodgkin, I guess is what I’m trying to say,” Abernathy clarifies. “But the things you read about pancreatic cancer, you know that outcomes are not very good.” According to the American Cancer Society, 69 percent of people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma will live for at least five years after their diagnosis. For stage 4 pancreatic cancer, that number is just one percent. The National Cancer Institute reports that pancreatic cancer causes seven percent of all cancer deaths in the United States.
Now 64, Abernathy is retired. He’s still married, and his son is now a policeman. He is a grandfather to 6-year-old Addison and 3-year-old Jack. He receives chemotherapy every two weeks for his pancreatic cancer, which gives him nausea but doesn’t prohibit him one bit from doing what he wants.
Abernathy spends much of his time playing with his grandchildren and volunteering. Giving back helps him dislodge cancer’s overbearing nature. “You feel you’re doing something positive,” Abernathy explains, “so as long as you feel like you’re useful, not only are you encouraging the people you’re volunteering for and giving something positive to their lives, you’re encouraging yourself.” Science backs him up: Here’s how volunteering makes you happier.
He wants to be remembered as a good person, not just a man with cancer, although he knows the role cancer will always play in his life. He also knows that people don’t generally live this long with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“We’re pleasantly surprised,” he says. “’Let me put it that way. When I ask, ‘What should we be doing right now?’ my doctor says, ‘Well, we don’t have enough data. You are the data—you’re one of them creating the data.’” Abernathy has been receiving standard chemotherapy treatments that are widely available. Some people respond better to cancer treatments than others, and researchers around the world are trying to figure out whether it’s genetic.
Abernathy is humble about his habits. He admits that he could eat better and exercise more, though he tries to do his best. It’s his attitude that is not standard.
“I hate the fact that I have cancer,” Abernathy says. “I really do, but I’m not going to crawl into a ball over it.” He recommends staying calm as much as possible. “Until proven otherwise, you are gonna be OK,” he says.
As unfair as it may seem, it’s not rare for cancer survivors to develop entirely new cancers. In one study from the Netherlands, nearly half of non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivors developed another cancer within 40 years.
Abernathy’s doctor, Muhammad Beg, M.D., a stomach and pancreatic cancer treatment specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center, says early treatment saved Abernathy’s life. Many people recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, especially at stage 4, will go online, see the grim statistics, and give up, says Dr. Beg. But Abernathy’s story shows that it’s worth sticking with the fight.
“Ken would have become one of those statistics had he not sought treatment,” he says.
Pancreatic cancer is so often deadly because it’s difficult to detect in its early stages. Dr. Beg has caught pancreatic cancer early in patients, but almost always by accident—”serendipitous findings from a scan they were having for a different reason.”
Abernathy had routine scans because of his history of lymphoma, but his spring 2013 test didn’t show signs of pancreatic cancer. However, that summer, he developed abdominal pain that just wouldn’t go away. (That’s one of the 7 pains you should never ignore.) He saw his primary care doctor, and tests spotted the cancer, which by then had progressed to Stage 4.
Your pancreas lies toward the back of your belly, a location that often disguises tumors. “It’s not until the cancer grows to a specific size that the patient starts developing symptoms,” Dr. Beg says.
The symptoms of pancreatic cancer are often non-specific. The most common ones are jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), stomach or back pain, weight loss, nausea and vomiting, poor appetite, gallbladder or liver enlargement, blood clots and diabetes. Diabetes, Dr. Beg emphasizes, is a big one. “By far most of the patients who have diabetes don’t have pancreatic cancer, but if you flip it over and look at all the diagnoses of pancreatic cancer, most patients were diagnosed with diabetes within the last year,” he says. “So that’s kind of the marker.”
If you have diabetes, track any symptoms associated with pancreatic cancer, especially unusual weight loss and stomach pains.
Of course, you can experience these symptoms without having cancer. “My method is if you have a symptom that lasts for more than a couple of weeks, have it checked out,” says Dr. Beg. Don’t waste time—especially if you have family history of pancreatic cancer or a family history of breast cancer or melanoma.