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6.21.2017

A Cancer Survivor’s Story: ‘Incurable’ Meets Its Match

June is National Cancer Survivors Month, and we are telling the remarkable stories of patients whose treatments at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center have enabled them to return to a normal life.

It may have been the worst present anyone ever received. In 2014, two days shy of her 58th birthday, Donna Robinson had a routine colonoscopy. During the procedure, however, the physician detected a small mass. The following day, Robinson underwent an endoscopy as part of further exploration. On the third day, her birthday, she received the bad news. The small mass was actually part of a very large mass that had grown through the wall of her intestine and into other locations in her abdomen. It was locally advanced pancreatic cancer, she was told — inoperable and incurable.

“It was a real shock, because I had no symptoms,” said Robinson. “The fact that we found it through a colonoscopy was pure luck. What was in my head was that it wasn’t the cancer that would kill me, but the fear of the cancer — if I let it. I decided that other people’s journeys were not going to be mine. And despite what the doctors told me, I also decided that somehow, I was going to have the surgery. I set out to find a way to make that happen.”

First, however, Robinson needed chemotherapy — she calls it the “nuclear bomb” — to shrink the tumor. Her husband stopped traveling for work to be with her throughout the ordeal. And during her treatment, her six sisters and best friend took turns staying with her for a week at a time to help out.

“We’re a large, Italian family, and their cooking put 35 pounds on me which I would need to make it through a surgery,” she said. “When I was through with chemotherapy, the tumor had shrunk by 70 percent. But I still couldn’t find a surgeon willing to do the operation because the tumor was wrapped around several arteries.”

Then Robinson learned that a new cancer surgeon, Nipun Merchant, M.D., was joining Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, and she asked to see him.

“I met with Donna and reviewed her records,” said Merchant, now professor of surgery, chief surgical officer of University of Miami Hospitals and Clinics, chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology, and director of surgical oncology research programs at Sylvester. “It appeared she needed a big, complex surgery, but it was one we should be able to do.”

Merchant was correct on both counts. During the seven-hour procedure, he removed the tumor, along with most of Robinson’s pancreas, her spleen, part of her stomach and part of her intestines. When he had finished, however, her lymph nodes were clear, and she had clean margins. Robinson calls Merchant a “miracle worker.”

“Sylvester is uniquely qualified to perform surgeries like Donna’s,” said Merchant. “Based on our multidisciplinary team approach, our volume of procedures and our surgical techniques that are performed at few other cancer centers, we are one of the premiere sites in the world in terms of clinical care and ongoing research.”

Now 60, Robinson is cancer-free and enjoying an active life. When not traveling with her husband (they are heading to Spain in August), she golfs, rides her bike, works out at the gym and plays an occasional fast-paced game of pickleball. She also counsels other recently diagnosed patients who find her story on the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (www.pancan.org). What does she tell them?

“Attitude is everything,” said Robinson. “I would never let myself believe I was going to die. It was not a part of my psyche. That’s what I tell everyone, and that’s what I told myself 20 or 30 times a day when necessary. That and stay off the Internet — it’s full of doom and gloom. You create your own reality, and what happens to you is what you are thinking about. This is your journey; create it the way you want it to be.

“I also tell them to find the right people. University hospitals are where you have the greatest technology and the best minds working on research and clinical trials. Sylvester has the edge on all of that.”

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