Diagnosed: November, 2002
Survivor: Howard Young is A 14-Year Survivor (2016)
Howard Young had returned on November, 2002 from a trip to Mexico on behalf of his family business, General Wholesale Beer Company in Atlanta, when he first started having stomachaches. He thought he had eaten something he shouldn’t have or picked up a virus, but after about a month with no improvement, he decided to see his doctor.
A CT scan revealed the growth in his pancreas.. Because the pancreas is deep inside the body, tumors there often go unnoticed—at least at first. In about 80 percent of cases, tumors are found only after they’ve spread to other parts of the body. At that point, surgery is not an option and the likelihood of survival decreases. Young was part of the fortunate 20 percent, and his doctor scheduled him to meet with a surgeon the next morning.
Just two days before, Young’s life was routine, his biggest problem figuring out what to get his wife, Becky for Christmas. Now, he was preparing for surgery and contemplating grim odds.
“It was like boom-boom-boom; everything was happening so fast,” Young recalls.
A somber Christmas passed and at 9:00 AM on December 26, 2002, doctors began Whipple surgery.
Angels on Earth
The five-hour surgery was followed by a series of painful and dispiriting complications that sent him back to the hospital repeatedly for a month. But he was never alone through the ordeal, and credits the support of his family, friends and medical team with helping him through it.
Two pieces of advice helped him hold on: His doctor told him to forget the statistics. Every individual is a statistic of one, he said, and has a fighting chance. And a family friend and cancer survivor told him that he didn’t have to fight his cancer alone.
“ ‘You turn it over to God, and he’ll take you through it,’ ” she told Young. “And I did and it gave me a peace that, hey, I’m not carrying this burden by myself.”
Young lost 35 pounds after the surgery, dropping to 165 pounds on his towering, 6-feet-6-inch frame. His cheeks were sunken and his voice creaked like that of an elderly man. A walk to the mailbox felt like a grueling 20-mile hike, uphill.
It was mid-February before he had gained enough weight and regained strength to begin chemotherapy.
For three months, he’d visit the hospital every other week. For nearly eight hours at a time, he was hooked to an IV that injected a drug so powerful he could feel it burn as it entered his veins.
But Becky was there with him, and the nurses—“angels on earth,” Young calls them—also delivered infusions of love with their hugs and support.
His initial three-month regimen was followed by a 30-day break and then another three months of chemotherapy. He then underwent 29 days of radiation therapy with an oral chemotherapy drug to enhance the effect of the radiation.
At the end of October, nearly a year after he was diagnosed, his doctor told him that he had done everything that he could do.
But Young wasn’t satisfied.
A Hope-Filled World
Like any cancer survivor, Young’s greatest fear was that his cancer would return. He wanted to do everything he could to minimize that chance.
He heard about Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, an internationally recognized scientist who heads up the pancreatic cancer research program at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Arizona, and made an appointment to see him. The non-profit’s mission is to translate advances in genetics into lifesaving treatments and early diagnostics, and Von Hoff leads an all-star team of researchers.
The meeting in November, 2003 opened Young’s eyes to a hope-filled world where people were working to find ways to cure or prevent pancreatic cancer.
By examining tissue samples from Young’s tumor, Von Hoff found that the cells had a mutation that led them to have too much of a certain protein. With this knowledge, Von Hoff started Young on a six-month treatment regimen with so called “targeted” drugs that exclusively attack cells with this mutation.
His only side effect was a bad case of acne. But after everything he’d been through, he wasn’t about to complain.
“It’ll make me feel young again,” he says he joked.
Another Christmas came and went, and by July 2004, he was done with his treatments. He takes enzymes to help digest food and an activated form of vitamin D thought to protect against recurrence, but aside from that, he feels as if he never had cancer—at least physically.
Emotionally, however, he knew he had an obligation to help others. He raised $100,000 in two years for TGen by asking friends to sponsor him in the 10-kilometer Peachtree Road Race. He’s not a runner and struggled to stay in the middle of the pack, but just being there was an accomplishment. A year before his first race, he could barely climb a flight of steps.
Today in 2014 Howard Young is a 12-year survivor of pancreatic cancer and is an energetic advocate of pancreatic cancer research. He is not only as a strong voice of awareness, but an active fundraiser for clinical research that will lead to a method of early detection, quality of life treatment, and ultimately one day a cure of this dreadful disease.