Pancreatic cancer survivor strives to save others

Woman shares inspiring way she's decided to use her 2nd chance

By Frank McGeorge - Reporter

WEST BLOOMFIELD, Mich. - Sheila Sky Kasselman of West Bloomfield, Mich., is a rare survivor of pancreatic cancer.

In 2007, Kasselman was diagnosed with the most aggressive form of the disease, which is one of the deadliest cancers.

"When I got the diagnosis, I was stunned," said Kasselman.  "I had a death sentence."

Now more than five years later, Kasselman is not only alive -- she has taken on an inspiring life mission. She is using her second chance at life to try and help other patients have the same opportunity to survive.

Because it's rarely detected early enough to be curable, the vast majority of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die from it.  That means unlike other cancers, there aren't many survivors to champion the cause.  Kasselman wants to change that.

Her fight began while this mother of three and grandmother of four was enjoying retirement.  She started to feel sick.

"For one year, I was not feeling well, and I had a lot of nausea," said Kasselman.

She saw her doctor who did tests, but nothing came up.  That was January 2007.

"Then in June, I dropped 15 pounds, just kind of fell off my body," said Kasselman.

In September, her youngest granddaughter spotted a telling sign.

"I was wearing a pair of pajamas that were yellow, and her comment was, 'You match your pajamas,'" said Kasselman.

Initially her symptoms were vague, but once she turned yellow, it was apparent something was getting worse, and Kasselman knew it.

"I changed doctors, I changed hospital systems, I kept looking and saying, 'I don't feel well,' and I got doctors that listened to me," said Kasselman.  "Then everything started at Henry Ford.  I had a team put together of Henry Ford doctors and everything went very quickly after that."

It was confirmed that Kasselman had the most aggressive form of pancreatic cancer.

"It was a daunting thing to deal with obviously," said Kasselman.

Her doctors recommended chemotherapy and radiation, as well as the only surgery available, known as a Whipple, where most of the pancreas and surrounding organs are removed.

"I asked for people, to meet people, who had this Whipple.  We couldn't find any," said Kasselman.  "I wanted to talk to cancer survivors, pancreas cancer survivors, we didn't have any.  So I said, 'If I get better, I will be that person.  I will talk to everybody,' and I do."

Kasselman has done more than talk. 

Dr. Michael Tainsky is a researcher at the Karmanos Cancer Institute.  Kasselman's Henry Ford doctors introduced them.

"She wanted to start a foundation and make a difference, and early detection was the obvious choice for pancreatic cancer," said Tainsky.

And so at age 68, without any experience, Kasselman started the Sky Foundation.

"It's the biggest learning curve I've ever had," said Kasselman.  "It continues to challenge me on a daily basis."

Their primary mission is not so much to find a cure, but rather to find a way to detect pancreatic cancer earlier.

"It's very important with almost any cancer, but especially with pancreas cancer, we need to get there early, otherwise it will have spread," said Kasselman.

Tainsky said they are making progress on that goal.

"A simple blood test that detects antibodies in blood serum, so it's a screening test, it's meant to be done regularly in high risk people," said Tainsky.

The test also shows promise in ovarian cancer, which is also usually found too late for a cure.

Kasselman knows that extra time can make all the difference.

"I lived because there was an early diagnosis, and I was lucky," said Kasselman.

She's reminded of this everyday with a single sticky note that's been on her refrigerator for five years, since her surgery.  It simply reads "one cell."

"With cancer, it takes one cell to return, and we know that, and so I am aware every single day when I get up and open my refrigerator door," said Kasselman.  "I can't take anything for granted, and I have to do something everyday with the fact that I am here."

"It just couldn't be more inspirational," said Tainsky.  "She's an amazing person."

The Sky Foundation is hosting a panel of national experts in pancreatic cancer on Monday, June 10 at 7:00pm.  The event will be held at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.  The panel will discuss the latest in research and treatment.  The event is free to the public, but you do need to reserve a spot in advance.  For more information, click here.

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