Joe Levine: Pancreatic Cancer Warrior

While Caring For His Mother in Hospice During Her Final
Days Joe Levine Discovered He Had Pancreatic Cancer.

Written By Carlin Kuhlmann
October 1, 2018

Joe Levine
Diagnosed: June 18, 2015
Survivor: In Remission

Arizona resident Joe Levine gets his positivity and love for life from his mom, Freida. When Freida was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, her focus was on family, friends and enjoying her life to the fullest. When it came time for hospice care, Joe and his siblings were by her side. It was during those few weeks of long visits filled with laughter that he noticed his urine had turned dark like the color of root beer. Joe thought he wasn’t drinking enough water, but his wife, Tammy, urged him to go to the emergency room.

At the HonorHealth ER, in Scottsdale, Joe’s bloodwork showed his lipase level was through the roof as well as other factors indicating an extreme case of pancreatitis. He was admitted on the spot. “For four days, I was in a hospital room on the phone with my mom making up stories why I couldn’t be there with her,” Joe recalls. An endoscopy revealed a blockage in Joe’s bile duct, so doctors inserted a stent and scheduled him for follow up a few weeks later. Joe was discharged from the hospital and able to be with his mom during her last days.

A week later, Joe was back at HonorHealth for an endoscopic retrograde cholangio-pancreatography (ERCP). The procedure captures x-ray images of the pancreatic and bile ducts by inserting an endoscope through the mouth, esophagus, and stomach into the small intestine and injecting a contrast dye through a catheter. Joe’s gastroenterologist saw the growth sticking through the bile duct and collected a sample of Joe’s cells during the procedure. The sample was sent right to the hospital’s pathology lab for analysis. Joe woke up from sedation to the news that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At the time it was the fourth leading cause of cancer death. Today pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death estimated to claim the number two spot by 2020.

Refusing to Give Up

Joe was devastated and angry, but ready to fight back. And at stage 2b, Joe’s cancer was operable.

His first order of business was to consult a dear friend who could empathize. 91-year old Mickey Somernan is a 19+ year survivor of pancreatic cancer after undergoing a Whipple Procedure. “She was a wonderful resource and gave me ample advice and accompanied me and my wife when we interviewed multiple surgeons,” Joe remembers. And so began what Joe describes as a whirlwind of research, doctor appointments and even more testing. He settled on Dr. Adyr Moss, a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, for his Whipple Surgery.

On July 1, 2015, Joe had a Whipple Procedure to remove the tumor in his pancreas and surrounding areas. Joe’s surgery was seven and a half hours long. But it didn’t faze him. “I was going to take everything they could throw at me and I was just going to keep going.”

Four days later, Joe was discharged from the hospital and preparing for the next phase of his treatment – a clinical trial combining the chemotherapy drugs Gemzar and Abraxane, under the care of Mayo Clinic medical oncologist and former Translational Genomics (TGen) researcher, Dr. Mitesh Borad. The trial had already shown some success in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer and the combination of the two drugs was now being tested on patients with stage 1 and 2 disease. Joe later learned that the original trial was led by world renowned pancreatic cancer expert Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, Physician in Chief of TGen and the Virgina G. Piper Distinguished Chair for Innovative Cancer Research at HonorHealth Clinical Research Institute.

For six months, Joe received weekly infusions of the two drugs. Every fourth week was a break from the chemotherapy. It was grueling physically, but Joe chooses to remember the incredible support and compassionate care he received from Tammy. A self-proclaimed foodie, Joe didn’t lose the 20-30 pounds many pancreatic cancer patients do. He and Tammy continued to enjoy cooking together and going out to new restaurants throughout his treatment. If something didn’t taste good, he experimented with other foods.

Joe finished the course of the chemotherapy drugs on the trial and was declared cancer free. “I’m convinced that the clinical trial killed any cancer that may have been floating around in my system after my surgery. Three and a half years later, I’m still clear!”

A Bright Future

Joe is closely followed by Dr. Erkut Borazanci at HonorHealth, who Joe describes as “a compassionate and caring soul, and also on the cutting edge of these clinical trials.” Though Joe lives with several health issues because of his cancer – diabetes, neuropathy, memory challenges, loss of taste buds – and is unable to return to his engineering career, his focus is elsewhere. “It’s not about me,” he imparts. “It’s about creating a better world for those around me. I want to devote my life to doing the best I can to help others in the pancreatic support world.”

Today, a grateful Joe regularly attends pancreatic cancer support groups with the sole purpose of being of service to patients and their caregivers. He drives them to doctors’ appointments and chemotherapy, fixes things in their house, and always makes himself available to offer advice and emotional support. As a result, Joe has developed a number of friendships.

At the 2018 Seena Magowitz Foundation 16th Annual Golf Classic, Joe’s list of friends grew even longer. “I got to meet so many who are still going through the trauma of their cancer, but are also finding hope through TGen, clinical trials, and physicians like Dr. Von Hoff and Dr. Borazanci . Roger Magowitz has devoted himself to finding the cure through supporting their research. This team is truly unsurpassed.”

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