Originally Writen By Debra Gelbart
August 24, 2017
Article Updated By Carlin Kuhlmann
August 30, 2018
Stan Vitikas: 11-Year Survivor
Diagnosed: Late 2007
Survivor: In Remission
Making A Difference, Over A Decade Later
Stan Vitikas of Chandler, Arizona is a born researcher, and that may have contributed to his being an 11-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. He’s been an engineer and a supply chain manager and he’s now a lecturer at Arizona State University, and he reads everything he can about a subject he’s interested in. In April 2007, the topic at hand was his own health. His doctor discovered that he had a dilated pancreatic duct that was highly suggestive of pancreatic cancer, but not definitive. No mass was visible at the time, though signs of chronic pancreatitis were present, which, Stan learned, could have explained the ductal dilation.
“My doctors were obviously very concerned that cancer was present,” Stan said, “and recommended a Whipple procedure (the most commonly performed surgery to remove tumors in the pancreas), but preventive surgery at age 47 is a difficult choice.” So, after reading all he could about pancreatic cancer, he and his doctor decided to take a “watchful waiting” approach rather than pursue invasive surgery.
In July of that year, a ductal stricture (narrowing of the pancreas duct) was discovered and doctors again recommended a Whipple procedure, “But I had no detectable mass and no elevated CA 19-9 (the tumor marker for pancreatic cancer),” Stan said.
The Defining Moments
He sought second opinions, asking whether he should have more testing or undergo surgery. Fate stepped in, and in March 2008, a small mass appeared, and he had a pancreatic biopsy that indicated the mass was “suspicious” for adenocarcinoma. At that point, he was scheduled for the Whipple procedure in May of that year. “It’s hard to submit to a Whipple when you have no symptoms and they’re not certain you have cancer,” he said. But by that time, he had spent “literally thousands of hours reading about pancreatic cancer” and was comfortable that he was taking the correct next step.
“The doctors were quite certain this was the early stages of cancer,” he said. His surgeon removed a two-centimeter tumor that was identified as a Stage 1, Grade 3 adenocarcinoma. “It sends a cold chill down your spine to hear those words confirmed,” Stan said. “But the battle was on.”
Doctors aren’t sure why Stan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at such a young age, but it may have arisen from chronic pancreatitis.
After he had surgery, he underwent six months of chemotherapy and 30 days of radiation therapy. Stan attributes his survival to his surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, Adyr Moss, M.D. “He’s a brilliant doctor—beyond capable and physically skilled,” Stan said. “He was extremely optimistic and told me he was confident he had removed every bit of the cancer. He told me, ‘You’re gonna live to be 80 and die from something else.’ That gave me the hope I needed.”
About four years later, Stan began experiencing complications related to residual scarring, resulting in several bouts of acute pancreatitis—including an eight-day hospital stay in the Czech Republic while on a business trip. As a result, Stan underwent a second Whipple procedure in January 2013. “The doctors said the localized radiation had likely damaged the area where the pancreas attached to the intestine,” he said. “That was really hard to face, but Dr. Moss again did an amazing job and I’ve been mostly pain-free since.”
A Phenomenal Future
Stan also credits what he calls the “four Fs” for seeing him through the difficult time: faith, friends, family and fitness, meaning good health. “When you’re lying in a hospital bed waiting for surgery knowing that no matter how successful it is, there’s still a high likelihood you won’t survive, you realize there are only a few things that matter in life, and you gain a much deeper appreciation for them,” Stan recalls.
The experience also challenged Stan to consider the impact he could make. “I’m a survivor, a lucky survivor, and the least I can do is use my fate to try to change the course of this disease.” He’s done just that in more ways than one. Stan got involved with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network as an advocate, joining over 300 hundred purple-clad volunteers to march on Washington D.C. and lobby for congressional funding for pancreatic cancer research. “One of the things I learned is that cures follow money. Most diseases that have cures today were heavily funded, whether through federal or philanthropic resources, and that’s how progress is made.”
The lesson propelled Stan to take matters into his own hands. Inspired by Roger Magowitz’s call to action, “If not me, then who?”, Stan started asking friends to join him in supporting pancreatic cancer research by giving to the Seena Magowitz Foundation Golf Classic. In his first year, he raised about $4,000. Stan has been committed to growing in what he calls “the art of fundraising” and has achieved his goal of increasing contributions from his friends and network every year by 20%. This year, his 7th consecutive year of fundraising for the Seena Magowitz Foundation, he has raised $29,000. (To read more about Stan’s fundraising efforts, click here.)
“What really impresses me is that Roger personally calls every donor to thank them for their generosity and share with them what their support is helping make possible; people really appreciate that and as a result they donate annually.”
He also is a patient liaison volunteer, offering emotional support to newly diagnosed pancreatic cancer patients as well as those who are in the midst of treatment or dealing with post-surgical issues. “When I was diagnosed, I couldn’t find a pancreatic cancer survivor anywhere,” he said. “So I want to make sure these patients know they’re not alone, that there are success stories, that progress is being made. I want to give them hope.”