Pancreatic cancer survivors describe new outlook on life

Survivors say serious health scare left them with new way of thinking

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DETROIT – The holidays naturally make everyone feel especially thankful for the many special things in their lives, but for one group of people, every day is to be celebrated.

In general, when people face a serious health crisis, it changes them in ways they don't often expect. There's no more serious health crisis than being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which has an average five-year survival rate of only 8 percent.

Five of those survivors talked about how it changed them.

"When they told me I had cancer, my heart just dropped," Elton Brown said. "Looked like it skipped a beat. Just scared me."

That was five years ago. Brown was told he'd need aggressive surgery for pancreatic cancer.

"I asked him one question," Brown said. "I said, 'How long do you think I have if I don't have the operation?' He said, 'A year, maybe more.' I said, 'If I have it, then what?' Well then he said, 'You just have to wait until the man above calls you.' I said, 'Well, that's what we're going to do. Wait on the man above to call.'"

He can smile about it now, but as another five-year survivor, Tony Romano said, "It was scary. There's no doubt about it. If anybody told you they weren't afraid, they would be lying, I believe."

Dr. David Kwon, the medical director of surgical oncology at Henry Ford Hospital, did the operations for Brown and Romano.

"It's amazing to be a care provider," Kwon said. "It really is amazing to be a physician to serve these patients. They come in with a smile and they come in with hope, and that is pretty inspiring and that makes our team be really grateful for the jobs that we have."

Kwon said he's seen how the adversity of battling cancer brings clarity to a person's life.

"Ive started being able to help other folk work more in the church," survivor Edna Gray said. "I think my diagnosis and the process that I went through really influenced that. Every day that I get up and make myself a cup of coffee, I appreciate that. Right down to my cup of coffee in the morning."

Sheila Sky Kasselman is a 10-year survivor. Her life's mission has become devoted to helping others through pancreatic cancer research, and the Sky Foundation that she founded.

"I have a third act that I never thought I'd have, and ... I'm happy every single day," she said. "I'm never negative. I'm never sad, and I'm full of hope. Just every day is like a holiday. That's how I feel."

William Burrell is a five-year survivor.

"You can have a billion dollars and can't buy one extra minute," Burrell said. "Time is the most important thing."

They said what you do in your time is a lesson everyone should think about.

"Taking the time to appreciate things," Kasselman said. "Just everyday things."

"Hearing these things inspires me to go home right now and give my two boys a hug -- My boys, Andrew and Nathan, and my wife -- a hug, and really to be grateful for every minute that I have," Kwon said.

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