If there really is a “picture of health,” it very well might look like Lester Nichols. Active and trim from a lifestyle that would leave most of us begging to sit down and rest, the 61-year-old epitomizes retirement at its best. After completing a successful career building harbors and docks for the State of Michigan in 1992, the lifetime Michigan resident and his wife Barbara built their retirement dream home on picturesque Presque Isle, overlooking the last harbor project he supervised on Lake Huron. Between maintaining his numerous volunteer responsibilities in the community and chopping and splitting all the wood needed to heat their Northern Michigan home, there’s little time Nichols to be idle, let alone be sick.
“I just don’t get sick,” says Nichols. “That’s why I was so bothered by the flu-like symptoms that hit me after a holiday party.” That was in late 2002. Nichols felt lousy, but it wasn’t until New Year’s 2003 that he saw red. Or rather, yellow. “I noticed that my eyes were tinged with yellow, and I began to itch.” Both of these symptoms grew worse, and Nichols sought immediate care from a local physician. “I thought it was gallstones,” he recounts, “but an ultrasound confirmed a mass at the head of my pancreas.”
The next challenge was learning exactly what that meant. “To be honest,” confesses Nichols, “I wasn’t even sure where my pancreas was, and I knew very little about what it did. Now I had to worry about a tumor growing on it.” A specialist from nearby Traverse City was brought in to biopsy the mass and insert a stent in the bile duct to relieve the jaundice. He successfully completed the biopsy, confirming pancreatic cancer, but was unable to penetrate the mass to place the stent. That’s when the recommendation was made to make the trip to the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, where more sophisticated equipment was available.
“I’ve always had a great respect for and relationship with my local doctors, including those in the Alpena area,” notes Nichols. “It was reassuring to know that they had a connection with a major institution like Michigan when I needed this specialized procedure.” Upon arriving at U-M, Drs. Lisa Colletti and Mark Zalupski examined Nichols and reviewed his health profile. Colletti then ordered an endoscopic ultrasound. The procedure confirmed that the mass was located close to a critical vein running to the pancreas – and that it was too large to be operable. The team recommended a treatment plan of chemotherapy (gemcitabine) plus radiation therapy in an attempt to shrink the tumor to an operable size. Nichols was able to return home for this phase of treatment, which lasted about two months.
Returning to U-M for follow up, Colletti performed diagnostic surgery and was able to perform the Whipple procedure, a resection of the pancreatic cancer.
“That was April 22, 2003, and I’m glad to report that it was a very successful procedure,” Nichols says. “Learning what was involved in the Whipple, it became clear to me just how important it was to be in a place where people were experienced with its complexity.” A Whipple procedure involves removing the head of the pancreas (about 30% of its total mass), the duodenum (first portion of the small intestine), the lower 1/3 of the stomach, the gallbladder, and the part of the bile duct that runs through the pancreas. Following removal of these organs, everything is reattached to the small intestine so that food can be digested properly. The small intestine is sewn to the bile duct, the remainder of the pancreas and the stomach. “My surgery lasted over 8 hours,” recalls Nichols. “I was in the recovery room for an entire day, and recuperated in the hospital for eleven days.”
“During my hospital stay, my wife and I discovered some of the other benefits of receiving treatment at a major institution like Michigan. Until my cancer, I had never spent a day in the hospital, so this was a major departure for both of us. It was such a relief to have the services of the Med Inn, a full-service hotel right on the hospital premises for my wife to call home while I recovered. What a difference it made to us both to be together during this time – while I received excellent care, she received the same.
Another service that proved a real lifeline for the Nichols family was the internet access available at Cancer Center, both through the Patient Education Resource Center (PERC) and in various waiting areas around the Center. “My wife was able to send messages and updates about my progress home to her list of contacts once or twice a day and receive encouragement in return,” remembers Nichols. “That was her number one source of support during that long and challenging period.”
For Nichols, surgery was followed with additional gemcitabine treatments to destroy any remaining cancerous cells circulating in his body. Now, nearly one year later, how’s he doing? “Well, before the diagnosis, my weight peaked at 210 pounds (I’m six feet tall). During treatment, I dropped to a scary 145 pounds, but since then have rebounded to 164 – the weight I maintained in my 30’s! With the exception of salads, which give me a bit of a problem, I again enjoy most anything and everything I did before my cancer. But no more ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffets! As for physical activity, I really haven’t slowed down much. I continue to volunteer with my church, local homeowners association, and township parks and recreation department. I continue to supervise the management of our area’s three historic lighthouses, and I still manage to chop enough wood to keep this house warm. Like I tell people: I’m back to about 85 percent, which is good considering there’s only 75 percent of me left!”
When asked to reflect back on the factors that made the biggest difference in his journey to recovery, Nichols puts family and spiritual encouragement at the top of the list. “Good family support, the prayers of our local church and the knowledge that we are the children of a friendly God made the greatest impact,” he says.
“I believe your mindset is critical to success, too. Early on I decided I wasn’t going to be afraid of dying, but that I wasn’t going to die today, either. I committed to doing whatever it took to get the best information and the best care I could. That’s what I’d tell others facing pancreatic cancer as well – use your energies to fight instead of to become emotional.
“Of course, physical activity can be another positive tool. My philosophy has always been ‘exercise it if it hurts.’ So right after surgery I began walking the hospital halls – three-and-a-half miles dragging two carts of ‘accessories’ was my way of fighting back and for me, it worked.”
Finally, says Nichols, “seek out the best care available. Given their level of experience with pancreatic cancer, I’m convinced that my stay at the University of Michigan made a tremendous difference in my outcome. I’m so glad I came to Michigan.”
To learn more about the Multidisciplinary Pancreas Program at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center or to make a clinic appointment, call the Cancer AnswerLine™ at 1-800-865-1125.