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Staying positive with stage 4 pancreatic cancer

Participating in a pancreatic cancer clinical trial gives Irv Pakula hope and purpose.

Older couple, man in green polo shirt and woman in black and white shirt standing together arm-in-arm.
Irv’s cancer treatment is working to keep him energetic and enjoying life with his wife, Faye.

When Irv Pakula, 76, talks about his wife of almost 55 years, Faye, he is quick to say she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

“She’s my everything—she always has been,” the Franklin Square, NY, resident said. And his everything likely saved his life last year, when she insisted that Irv go in for a colonoscopy.

“He was losing weight, and we didn’t know why,” she explained. “He has diabetes, and I thought maybe it was muscle wasting. So I got after him to go in for the colonoscopy so we could see if something else might be going on.”

While the colonoscopy was clear, that consult with the gastroenterologist led to an important conversation and follow-up test. When Irv and Faye told the doctor that he had a history of pancreatic cysts, as well as weight loss, the physician ordered a CT scan. The results showed a mass on his pancreas—and an endoscopic biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

“It was like being hit on the back of the head with a brick,” Irv said. “But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. I knew it was bad, and I wanted to get it dealt with right away. My son, who is an EMT, knew someone at Northwell Health who highly recommended medical oncologist Craig Devoe, MD. So we set up an appointment to see him.”

As Irv was not a candidate for surgical treatment, Dr. Devoe suggested that he participate in a clinical trial for a novel drug treatment. Both Irv and Faye said that they appreciated Dr. Devoe’s direct, yet compassionate, manner right from the first appointment.

“Dr. Devoe and his staff sat in the room with us, and they started going over the trial, what it was and why he thought it would be best for me,” Irv said. “He didn’t pressure me or anything. He told me from the beginning, ‘This is your choice.’ In fact, he said that I might not even qualify for this phase III clinical trial—which, fortunately, I did. But he made Faye and I feel very comfortable. He made things easy to understand, easy to talk about—and he continues to make things that way.”

The two felt so comfortable with Dr. Devoe that they didn’t bother getting a second opinion, canceling an appointment they’d already made at another hospital as they came home from seeing Dr. Devoe.

Older couple, man in green polo shirt and woman in black and white shirt, seated on a tan couch.
Irv and Faye have been married 55 years—she helps him “never give up.”

“He was just wonderful,” Faye said. “After meeting him, we didn’t want to go anywhere else. We knew we were exactly where we needed to be.”

For the past year, Irv has participated in the trial, receiving treatments every Tuesday. He said that while he often feels slightly apprehensive before getting treatment, that anxiety immediately dissolves once he walks through the door.

“He says a calmness just comes over him,” Faye said. “The staff, the care team, everyone is just so kind and caring.”

Irv wholeheartedly agreed. “Once we walk in there, the greeter has a big smile on her face. Then we go to check-in, and we are welcomed there just as warmly,” he said. “Everyone knows who you are and is very nice. So if you have to be in a place like that, that’s the place to be.”

Irv’s response to the experimental treatment, thus far, has been remarkable. His tumor has shrunk by 80%, and his cancer markers have decreased dramatically, going from 27,000 to 141. More importantly, Irv said he feels “pretty good”—not just about his own response to the treatment, but that his participation in the trial may help cure others in the future.

“There are some side effects—there are always some side effects,” he said. “But the treatment far outweighs the issues. And I feel a lot more like myself.”

Older man in green polo shirt and tan pants looking at a photo album.
The results of Irv’s experimental pancreatic cancer treatment has been remarkable.

Irv said he now has the energy and motivation to go out with friends, spend time with his five grandchildren and even go out shopping.

“Before, I wasn’t feeling up to going out,” he said. “But now, I’m much more receptive to going out, socializing more and having fun.”

Irv is most grateful for the time he gets to spend with Faye. He is very much looking forward to their 55th wedding anniversary in October 2019.

“My wife keeps me on a positive level,” he said. “She takes good care of me and makes sure everything is OK. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”