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Progress, Fall 2004

Lester Nichols, Survivor- Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; February, 2003

What went through your mind when you were first diagnosed?
I just don’t get sick, so I was really bothered at the end of 2002 when I developed some flu-like symptoms after a holiday party. Right after New Year’s 2003. My eyes looked yellow, and I began to itch. I wasn’t thinking cancer. I thought it was gallstones, but an ultrasound confirmed a mass at the head of my pancreas. I wasn’t even sure where my pancreas was, and suddenly I had to worry about a tumor growing on it.

Presque Isle is a long way from Ann Arbor.How’d you decide to be treated at U-M?
I had great doctors on my team, both locally at Alpena General Hospital and at U-M. First, a specialist from nearby Traverse City was brought in to perform a biopsy. He confirmed pancreatic cancer, but more sophisticated equipment was needed to do more. Thanks to my doctors’ connection with U-M, I transferred there for follow-up. Because of the size and location of the tumor, they recommended chemotherapy and radiation before surgery. I returned to Alpena for those treatments, then came back to U-M to undergo what’s called a Whipple procedure – an intense surgery to remove part of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, part of the stomach, and the gall bladder. It lasted over eight hours, and I stayed in the hospital for eleven days.

What an experience for a guy who doesn’t get sick! What helped you during that time?
Until my cancer I’d never spent a day in the hospital, so it was tough for me, but it was probably tougher for my wife.We were grateful for the services of the Med Inn, the hotel right in the hospital that my wife called “home” during my stay. Also,my wife was able to access the internet in the Cancer Center every day to send messages and updates home and receive encouragement in return.

How are you doing now?
My surgery was a big success. I’m happy to say I’ve remained cancer free and feeling well ever since. I enjoy most of the foods I did before my cancer – except for salads and “all-you-can-eat” buffets! I really haven’t slowed down much, either. I volunteer with my church and in our community, including volunteering to supervise the management of our area’s three historic lighthouses, and I still manage to chop enough wood to keep our house warm. I believe good exercise is healing. Like I tell people: I’m back to about 85 percent, which is good considering there’s only 75 percent of me left!”

What advice would you give someone who’s just been diagnosed?
I believe your mindset is critical to your success. 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 available. That’s what I’d tell others facing cancer– use your energies to fight instead of to become emotional. And trust in God; He never gives you more than you can endure.As it says in the Book of Jeremiah,“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord,“plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

How would you define a ‘survivor?
I consider anyone who can live a normal life after cancer a survivor. And I’m living a very normal life.

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This article is part of the Cancer Center's News Archive, and is listed here for historical purposes.

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