Pancreatic Cancer Patient Profile: Marissa Smith

Marissa Smith’s pancreatic cancer journey is anything but typical. For starters, she was 38 years old and working as a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse when she was diagnosed. She then found out that her cancer involved a neuroendocrine tumor on her pancreas, which is unusual when adenocarcinoma is more common with the pancreas. But even if her story is unusual, Marissa is happy to share her cancer story in case others can benefit from what she learned during her journey.

When Marissa reflects about the beginning of her cancer story, the first symptom she experienced was a sour stomach. “Nothing was helping. I decided to eat, and that made me feel worse. I had pain in my upper abdomen, chills, and sweating. My friends who were nurse practitioners thought that my symptoms sounded like gallstones.” Married with two young children, she and her husband didn’t have any family who lived in their area, so all four of them had to go to the Emergency Room. They were fortunate to have friends who could take their kids to stay with them for the night.  

Marissa’s journey progressed pretty rapidly from there. She received an ultrasound, a CT scan, and then was informed there was a tumor with well-defined edges on her pancreas. The community hospital then sent her to a hospital in the city to get a biopsy of the tumor. A week later, she met with the surgical oncologist to find out the type of tumor and her treatment plan. “It was a golf ball-sized pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. He said it was very slow-growing and that I’d probably had it for a long period of time. So I might have passed a gallstone, and it’s quite likely that my tumor was found out of sheer luck.” Her doctor suggested the Whipple procedure to remove the head of her pancreas, part of her stomach, part of her small bowel, gallbladder, and bile duct. She also received a PET scan prior to surgery to confirm there weren’t any additional tumors. 

Following Marissa’s surgery, her recovery also wasn’t typical. “I had what we call ‘nurse curse,’ which is every complication that’s imaginable. My stomach was getting very bloated, and I was in pain. Pancreatic fluid was leaking into my abdomen.” She had multiple scans and tests and two procedures where they removed the fluid from her abdomen and then analyzed the fluid. Her hemoglobin level dropped, her care team had to reinstall a tube, and she experienced a gastrointestinal (GI) bleed. After the GI bleed, Marissa received a blood transfusion, and her team later informed her that they almost had to put her in the intensive care unit. “Then when I was eating after I got home, and my nurse practitioner friend could see that my food was coming back out of my drain that they put in. The connection between the stomach and my small bowel was leaking.” Her care team wanted to pull her drain out and send her home, but Marissa insisted on staying for observation for 24 hours with all the complications that she’d already experienced.

Reflecting back on her recovery, Marissa says, “I feel I was fortunate to be in good physical condition just prior to my diagnosis. I lost a lot of muscle mass while I was in the hospital, but I would have had a more difficult time if I had been in worse physical condition before my diagnosis.” 

Marissa got involved with patient advocacy groups after she completed treatment and returned to work. She didn’t do online research after her diagnosis, since her doctor was pretty straightforward with her treatment plan. The COVID-19 pandemic began right after she returned to work, so unfortunately there were no in-person support groups.  

Throughout the process, there were many lessons learned that she wants to share. “Educating yourself is so important. Trust your doctors. Understand what they’re saying or ask questions if you don’t understand. I think your outlook is very important. Understand what your goals are for your life and how you want to live your life.” Patients and their loved ones need to weigh the different factors and goals for during and after treatment. Some patients might choose quality over quantity in their cancer journey, and it’s a personal decision for each person.

Marissa was in awe of her husband and kids. “My kids have been amazing. My team thought I’d be in the hospital for a week for treatment, but it ended up being a month. I went in before Thanksgiving and didn’t come home until just before Christmas.” She returned to work in February, and then the COVID-19 pandemic started. “Our kids were in preschool and 1st grade at that time. That was a horrible year for everyone, but our kids were just incredible. My family is awesome.” At the time, Marissa was in a doctoral program, working a weekend night shift, and hybrid homeschooling our kids. In early 2021, she took a leave of absence from school, went down to two 12-hour night shifts, and was with their kids for their remote school time in the hybrid model. “I ended up working as a substitute nurse in our school district when we switched back to full in-person learning, and I’m now working as a nurse in our home district with our oldest child in my building. I love it, but I took a 50 percent pay cut moving from the hospital to a public school, but my work-life balance is worth it.” She and her family especially enjoy hiking and the outdoors at Adirondack State Park and Lake Placid. They’ve simplified their work lives to enjoy more time with their kids.

Marissa has some other advice for patients and loved ones, “I know it’s hard for some people to ask for help, but ask for help when you need it.” Her family had a meal train that was delivered to a cooler on their front porch so that friends could leave food without intruding at all. Friends took their kids to their activities. Marissa saw a therapist and is still going to process all her feelings about her cancer experience.

Even though going through cancer was difficult, Marissa is so grateful for her family and friends who supported her through everything. She also stresses the importance of self-advocacy. “It’s your body, and you want to make sure you understand what the specialists are telling you. Make sure that you’re making an educated decision for yourself and that you have all the information you need to make the right decision for you and your family.”

Real Stories of Pancreatic Cancer

Real patient experiences shared privately at Read more, share if you like or join in the conversation. Making sure you feel less alone navigating a cancer diagnosis is important. Connecting you to those who can relate and provide support is what we do.

Pancreatic Patient 1: Female (Canada)

This is my first entry. A friend directed me to a related site today, and somehow I ended up here. I was given the pancreatic cancer verdict the end of last year – after months of testing and being told ‘whatever it is, it isn’t cancer’. Ha! So much for the – it isn’t cancer theory. I was referred to a world class surgeon in Toronto early this year who was able to do a Whipple procedure, removing about a third of my pancreas.

Initially he thought he got it all. However subsequent scans revealed the original cancer had metastasized into the liver. So then it was off for chemo. What a nightmare. Again, an excellent oncologist at an excellent facility. I was put on the 5-FU regime (how appropriate is that name!) from May-Nov. Twelve treatments in total. Nearly killed me. I don’t think I have ever felt as ill as I did during the 2 weeks between treatments. Just began to feel normal when it was time to begin all over again. But, by the end of the year my tumors had reduced considerably, and my oncologist considered me his poster girl. We all knew the reality of pancreatic cancer.

However, by the end of February the party was over. The tumors were back. So another hit of 5-FU. This time the drug concoction plus the accompanying steroids, triggered bleeding abdominal ulcers. It was decided to discontinue 5-FU. I am now receiving Gemcitabine, a less aggressive treatment. I feel I’ve been given a reprieve chemo-wise, but only time will tell if this will work for me or not.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone with pancreatic cancer. I am blessed with a wonderfully supportive husband, family and friends. Life is good. But I hate this disease with a passion. Acceptance of it is not in my vocabulary.

Pancreatic Patient 2: Female (USA)

Just found this site and today is my first entry. I was diagnosed the end of June with inoperable pan can. I went through an experimental drug trial for Tnferade in the fall. It was absolutely brutal….and did nothing as far as we know. My tumor has remained basically “stable” since my diagnosis, with my current treatment of gemzar every other week. The gemzar really knocks me down for a few days, but being as I’m still “stable”, I guess it’s worth it. Early September of this year I spent two weeks in ICU, as all of my treatments/drugs created a 5cm duodenal ulcer……Had no idea I had it until it began to bleed profusely…..10 pints of blood later, I’m still here. Back to work now, but only three days a week. Absolutely dreading the winter, having lost 50lbs since this started I don’t have an ounce of fat for insulation!

Feeling so much better since the ulcer was taken care of! I believe it has been a undetected problem for quite some time, but how would you know….I mean was I having a lot of abdominal pain…yes….but I have pan can so how do you differentiate? Best of all I am sleeping better. Prior to the episode, I was usually only able to sleep two hours or so at time! Now my sleep is nearly “normal. I had plans to go to Vegas with my family in October for a family wedding….but of course was side lined by the hospitalization. Was able to rebook my husband’s ticket and mine for the first week of December and am excited at feeling well enough to have a good time…..and have some nice weather, if only for a weekend!!! Of all the compromises this illness has forced upon me, not being able to tolerate traveling much has really been one of the worst things since I got sick. Prior to getting sick I travelled the world extensively. I have plans to celebrate my 50th birthday this March in London…and soooooo hope I will still be well enough to do it!

Hello friends! Still here!!! Have gained back 25-30 lbs. and doing much better! Been off chemo for eight weeks now. The last round has damaged my nerves in my hands and feet. The doctors say they have exhausted all established tx options for me. This is not necessarily bad news, as the reason is more people in my shoes…don’t get this far. My last scan showed my liver mets are nearly imperceptible and the once very large head tumor itself shows a “residual”! They don’t have any idea what this means in the long run, and consider me a “lucky” anomaly. I am far from the person I was physically, before this started…but certainly grateful to still be here. I hope someone reads this post who has been recently diagnosed with inoperable pan can……I know that the odds are so very poor for most of us….but PLEASE believe there are cases like mine out there…..It isn’t always a 3-6 window. When I was diagnosed, I never expected to be here this long…26 months and counting. Not that I was being a defeatist or negative…..It’s just as a healthcare professional myself, I understood the grave reality of my situation. That said….we all MUST remember….ever case IS different and the best advice I can give is to always stay positive!!! Since I the first of the year I have begun to try to resume my life’s passion….regular travels. I have been to London twice, one in March to celebrate my 50th with friends from around the globe, and last month for a music symposium my husband was invited to attend. I plan on getting back to London in a month or two, and to Vegas in September!!! Anyways…thanks for reading…and stay positive!!! XOX

Pancreatic Patient 3: Female Caregiver of Male patient (USA)

Just little background… My husband, 54, was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer last Sept. We went to have the Whipple procedure and found the cancer had spread to his abdominal cavity. He just completed his 10th round of Folfirinox. The treatment side effects have been continuing to get worse…. he sleeps most of the day and when he is awake he is in pain. His weight has gone from 220 to 150 in the last year and with his appetite gone it continues to go down. We have been holding on to the hope that once he completed 12 rounds of Folfirinox they would do another CT Scan and God willing the spots on his abdominal wall would be gone.

We thought he would then be a candidate for the Whipple. He has a tumor in the head and tail of his pancreas. Today we were told that wouldn’t be happening…. while I understand the reasoning (the lengthy recuperation period, the added weight loss and the overwhelming odds that the cancer would come back anyway) I am heartbroken. I had convinced myself that we were going to beat this. I never let myself think we couldn’t. I’m supposed to grow old with this man, our “golden” years…. we raised three beautiful children together, watched the oldest get married, watched them graduate and go their own ways…. it was supposed to be “our” turn. Our kids are 25, 26 & 30.

Today we had to tell them that time is limited. All I can hope for realistically is another wonderful five years… I really hope I get another 5 years.