Elizabeth O’Connor: Pancreas Cancer Warrior

Written By Debra Gelbart
August 16, 2017

Elizabeth O’Connor
Diagnosed: November 2010
Survivor: In Remission

Fighting Back Tirelessly

How does a 31-year-old mother of two respond to a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer? Here’s one way: Elizabeth O’Connor of Woodstock, Georgia refused to accept an outlook of no hope. She went to one of the most renowned oncologists in the Atlanta area, who gave her the sliver of reassurance she needed and led her to Daniel Von Hoff, M.D., F.A.C.P., a pioneer in the development of targeted therapies for treatment of cancer at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix and HonorHealth Research Institute in Scottsdale, Arizona.

When Life Changed

The story of Elizabeth’s diagnosis began when she was pregnant with her second child, Andrew. Unlike her pregnancy with daughter Abigail, her second pregnancy was fraught with discomfort and alarming symptoms. Nauseated, weak and without an appetite from about the 20th week of gestation, she was told she had large cysts on her ovaries that concerned her doctors. In the days following the birth of her son six weeks early, in October, 2010, she underwent a total hysterectomy and fluid was removed from her abdomen and her lungs.

She was told she needed two diagnostic procedures to find the cause of the fluid build-up. Before she underwent those procedures, she developed a blood clot in her arm and was hospitalized again. On November 5, 2010, she received the shattering news that she had advanced pancreatic cancer. “I was told, ‘We can give you chemo for comfort but there’s not much else we can do to treat you,’” Elizabeth said, adding that she was told her life expectancy at that point was merely months.

But she and her husband Patrick were not going to accept that. She went to see Atlanta medical oncologist Daniel Dubovsky, M.D. “He said to me, ‘No one holds a crystal ball for your life. My job is to get you over this curve and shrink the tumor.’”

With those straightforward words, she was given the gift of hope. At the urging of Dr. Dubovsky, she traveled to Scottsdale to meet Dr. Von Hoff, Physician in Chief and Director of Translational Research at TGen and the Chief Scientific Officer for US Oncology and HonorHealth Research Institute.

Dr. Von Hoff adjusted her chemotherapy regimen for maximum effectiveness and recommended that she see Milwaukee surgeon Douglas Evans, M.D. for an operation to remove most of her pancreas. Altogether, she endured two and a half years of chemotherapy treatments and surgery to remove 75 percent of her pancreas.

Throughout that grueling 30-month ordeal, she was grateful to be alive. She celebrated her children’s milestones. Because of the expertise of Dr. Von Hoff and her other doctors, she was declared “stable” in mid-2013.

About a year later, in May 2014, Elizabeth began experiencing painful spasms in her leg and learned that the pancreatic cancer had spread. She underwent surgery on her left lung in July of that year and on her brain in November of that year.

How Does This Happen to Someone So Young?

Elizabeth has discovered she has an inherited genetic mutation called PALB2, which makes her more susceptible to certain types of cancer, including pancreatic. “The doctor told me the disease may have started growing in me when I was 11 or 12,” she said. For information on genetic testing, visit cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/genetics/should-i-get-genetic-testing-for-cancer-risk.html.

An Amazing Warrior

Today, almost seven years after first finding out she has a life-threatening illness, Elizabeth, 38, is feeling good, enjoying life with her husband and children, and working as a preschool teacher. She takes an oral chemotherapy medicine called Lynparza every day. Every three to four months, she travels to Scottsdale for a check-up with Dr. Von Hoff. Her daughter Abigail is now a middle-schooler and son Andrew is a first-grader.

She’s grateful for the Seena Magowitz Foundation, too. “It’s an excellent foundation that helps to support and raise funds for TGen and for Dr. Von Hoff and his team,” Elizabeth said. “Money that’s raised goes directly toward research and treatments for pancreatic cancer. It amazes me how many warriors we hear about right here in Atlanta, survivors we may not know about if it weren’t for the Foundation.”

Elizabeth’s father, Randy Dobbs, who has successfully led and grown businesses that include one of the largest private equity firms in the world, has been an advocate for pancreatic cancer patients ever since Elizabeth was diagnosed. Her mother, Judy, also is active with the Magowitz Foundation.

Elizabeth wants current and future pancreatic cancer patients to remember this: “Never give up hope. Advocate for yourself; be a fighter.” She says she has known since the day she was diagnosed that “I was going to work as hard as I can to move on from this disease. I know God has a special purpose for me here.”

Update: October 2015

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