DALLAS (CBS11) – Susanne Calabrette never considered that breast cancer would save her life. But, it did. She was 37 at the time and raising three young daughters—and she was scared.
“I prayed that I could at least make it until my oldest was 18,so she could help her father with the kids,” recalled Calabrette.
Calabrette opted for aggressive treatment and underwent a modified radical mastectomy. “I was like, ‘take my arm if you need to, I need to be here for my girls’.”
She later learned that she had inherited the BRCA2 gene mutation, which increases her risk for other cancers. So decades later, doctors at UT Southwestern’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center were watching closely for signs of trouble—and found it.
Calabrette was showing signs of pancreatic cancer.
“The majority of those patients are not going to develop pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. Rebecca Minter. “But, of all the cancers they are at risk for, we hear time and again: this is the cancer they are most fearful of, because there really is not effective treatment if they wait until they develop pancreatic cancer.”
Pancreatic cancer represents 3 percent of cancer cases diagnosed annually. Yet, according to the National Cancer Institute, more people die annually from pancreatic cancer than breast cancer, an estimated 41,780 people. Five-year overall survival rates are currently 7.7 percent, in part, experts say, because there are no effective methods of early detection.
“It’s quite different from an early diagnosis of breast cancer,” said Dr. Minter, a surgical oncologist and a pancreatic cancer specialist at UT Southwestern. “As we tell all the patients that come to our pancreatic cancer prevention program, we’ve waited too long if we’ve waited until we identify a cancer.”
The Pancreatic Cancer Prevention program debuted at UT Southwestern last year. Dr. Minter, along with colleague Dr. Nisa Kubiliun, gastroenterologist and Director of Endoscopic Services at UT Southwestern, work to monitor, evaluate and treat high risk patients based on a family history of cancer and certain gene mutations. Doctors look for pre-cancer warning signs like pancreatic cysts.
“We were able to do an ultrasound of the pancreas,” said Dr. Minter, “pull some of that fluid out and look at it under a microscope and do additional testing to look for mutations in the test fluid. In Mrs. Calabrette case, the findings were consistent with the type of cyst that can be precancerous and recommended removing a significant portion of the pancreas before she developed an overt cancer.”
Calabrette had 75 percent of her pancreas removed last year and is doing well. The pancreas is a gland involved with digesting food and controlling blood sugar levels so she takes insulin shots daily.
“The doctor said I won the pancreatic cancer lottery– because they found everything before it turned to cancer,” says Calabrette, with a soft laugh.
Calabrette says her three adult daughters also tested positive for the BRCA 2 gene, although none have developed cancer. She says knowledge of the risk has helped them all make better choices.
“I’m living a healthier lifestyle. They definitely live a healthier lifestyle and they’re vigilant in getting their checkups and watching for it, and knowing what they’re going to do if it does happen.”
For now, though, Calabrette is grateful—for the decades old diagnosis that led to the additional screening–and for her husband of nearly 52 years, Joe.
“He has been great. He didn’t sign up for all this,” said Calabrette, her eyes filling with tears. “And I’m very thankful.”
She said they both earned pilot’s licenses over the years and they’re ready to climb back into their hot air balloon and continue enjoying life.
“We’ve had a wonderful life…and we get to have more.”