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Cancer survivor says chance conversation saved her life: 'I feel that I am a miracle'

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Posted at 4:08 PM, Nov 18, 2021

CLEVELAND — Thursday is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. Pancreatic cancer is the 11th most common form of cancer, but the third deadliest.

Erika Freeman told News 5 she’s been cancer-free for nearly a year now. An outcome that could have been very different, if not for a chance conversation at work.

“My grandmother and my great grandmother died of pancreatic cancer,” she said. “They were both diagnosed and passed away within six months of diagnosis.” Because of her family history, Freeman had genetic testing done and found out she has Lynch syndrome, putting her at a higher risk of colon cancer. The University Hospitals employee was chatting with a doctor about why more people should get such genetic testing, when she revealed what she’d learned.

“There was an article I read one time about people who had Lynch Syndrome may have the possibility of having bladder cancer hiding somewhere,” she said he told her. She decided to have her bladder checked as a precaution, which required a CT scan. That’s when a one-centimeter mass was discovered on her pancreas.

Dr. Jordan Winter, director, surgical Services, University Hospitals Seidman Cancer Center, said pancreatic cancer screenings usually start with a family history and physical exam, followed by lab tests, then a C-T. Thanks to that chance conversation at work, Freeman jumped to the end of that process. She wasn’t showing any of the typical symptoms, which can include jaundice, abdominal discomfort, back pain, diarrhea, onset or exacerbation of diabetes, anxiety or depression, and unintentional weight loss. All symptoms that can present as far as a year before a diagnosis.

“Only 5% of people find it in stage one,” she said. Tests of that mass were inconclusive, but because of her family history, Freeman decided to be aggressive. She agreed to have surgery to have the mass removed. Once it was tested, doctors found she was right to act. It was cancer.

“I feel like everything had been orchestrated…for it to be found that early and for me to survive,” she told News 5.

Now nearly one year cancer free, she encourages others to advocate for their own health, get genetic testing if your family history warrants it, and she’s pushing for advancements in pancreatic cancer treatment. Advancements Dr. Winter is on the cutting edge of.

“There’s a lot of research being done with innovative strategies targeting new pathways in our lab,” he said. He said treatments haven’t advanced much beyond conventional chemotherapy. But medical advancements require clinical trials, and Dr. Winter said only 5% of pancreatic cancer patients have an opportunity to enroll.

“If more patients enrolled it’s likely we would come up with answers to very important questions quicker,” he said.

It’s an effort Freeman is already a part of. She donated her tumor to a study for research.

“I’m just so grateful,” she said. ”I feel that I am a miracle and I feel like it’s been divinely orchestrated for me to tell this story to people so that they can know that pancreatic cancer does not have to be a death sentence.”