The Luckiest Guy in the World

Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors are stealthy. This rare form of cancer, which took the lives of Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and legendary singer Aretha Franklin, among others, exhibits almost no symptoms until it’s already spread to the liver or other organs – when life expectancy decreases dramatically.

But thanks to the diligence, timeliness and collaborative teamwork of Physicians and caregivers, Tim Dole’s experience with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer has a happy ending.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” said Tim, 66, who was declared cancer-free July 17, 2019. “Cancer has made my life better.”

Tim’s remarkable story began in September 2016 as he was driving from his home in Mt. Baldy Village to a farmer’s market in Claremont. He suddenly felt like he was having a heart attack and pulled over. He asked a friend to drive him to the Emergency Department at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center (PVHMC), where doctors immediately admitted him to the Hospital.

Thorough testing ruled out a heart attack or any other cardiac issue. Though Tim was still very sick, he checked himself out of the Hospital and went home, where he lives alone.

“I don’t like needles,” Tim said. “After 30 hours in the Hospital, I was done. I pulled all the tubes out, put my clothes on and called my friend to take me home without telling anybody at the Hospital. I was convinced I just had the flu.”

The Hospital called Tim in the middle of the night and told him to come back immediately. But when his friends checked on him early the next morning, Tim was still at home. Concerned, they called his doctor, Robyn Jacoby, DO.

“I called the Hospital and found out that Tim had sepsis, a systemic, life-threatening infection,” said Dr. Jacoby, who is a personal friend of Tim’s and is also on staff at PVHMC. “I told Tim to get back to the Hospital right now.”

“I trust Robyn, who is my friend as well as my doctor, 120 percent,” Tim said. “She’s always in my corner. So I went back. I didn’t realize how sick I was.”

Re-admitted to PVHMC, Tim received IV antibiotics to treat the sepsis. During the next six days, doctors also ordered a CT scan, ultrasound and MRI of the abdomen in an attempt to find the source of the infection. What they found was very different.

“The MRI showed a tumor in the tail of the pancreas,” said Hla Myint Maung Hwang, MD, the Hospitalist caring for Tim. “And I asked gastroenterologist Nischita Merla, MD to do an endoscopic ultrasound-guided biopsy of the tumor.”

The biopsy confirmed the tumor was cancerous. “I was in a daze,” Tim said. “I was pretty shocked. I’ve never been seriously sick and I wasn’t ready for it. I was terrified. But scared as I was, I just had to move forward.”

The type of tumor Tim had makes up less than 2 percent of all pancreatic cancers, which account for only 3 percent of all cancers in the nation, according to the American Cancer Society.

“Tim had what is called a low grade, well-differentiated neuroendocrine tumor,” said Tim’s oncologist, Preeti Chaudhary, MD. “This type of tumor tends to grow and spread slowly, but it is unusual for it to be detected early, because patients remain asymptomatic for a long time. If you start developing symptoms due to the disease traveling to the liver, survival for most patients is measured at about 30-40 percent. And this type of cancer does not respond well to chemotherapy. But Tim’s cancer was detected early and it was not a big tumor. Everything is treatable, but Tim’s cancer was curable.”

The extremely specialized surgery for Tim’s rare form of pancreatic cancer was done in Los Angeles, and Tim was home just after Christmas. He had follow-up blood work and scans at PVHMC every three to six months after that, but he didn’t need either chemotherapy or radiation. Tim now has no sign of cancer, but he will continue to be monitored by Dr. Jacoby at her discretion.

Today, Tim is back to work plumbing homes part time, hiking Mt. Baldy with friends, and spending time with his family, especially his three grandchildren. He feels blessed.

“Hearing the word cancer can turn your life upside down but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “It made me a totally different person. Before, I had little time to listen to anybody unless it benefitted me. Now, I make the time to listen.”

Tim cannot find enough words to express his deep appreciation to everyone at PVHMC and he hopes that by telling his story he can help others. “If something is going on with your body, don’t ignore it,” he said. “Go to the doctor. I thought I knew my body better than God. I am so thankful that my friends and Dr. Jacoby made me go back to the Hospital that day.

“I couldn’t have beat cancer without my friends and the doctors at Pomona Valley Hospital,” Tim continued. “Everyone was amazing, especially Dr. Chaudhary, who gave me hope when I was terrified that I was going to die, and Dr. Hwang, who helped identify my cancer. I could have just fallen through the cracks. The doctors and nurses at Pomona Valley Hospital Medical Center were very professional and worked together flawlessly to make sure I got the best care possible to get through this. Everyone there is fantastic.”

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