Facing uncertain future, pancreatic cancer patient defies odds

When John Byrnes first learned he was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, he was devastated. At age 72, he was enjoying retired life in Gloucester with Mollie, his wife of 50 years, spending their time gardening, enjoying the local music scene, and supporting the Cape Ann community. He feared for the future, which had suddenly become unknown, and especially hated the idea of leaving Mollie and their two grown sons, Peter and Josh.

John credits Mollie for helping to uncover his cancer. In 2015, he began suffering from mild abdominal pain, which lasted for several months. He consulted multiple doctors, but none were able to pinpoint the cause. When the pain worsened, Mollie insisted on a trip to the emergency room at a nearby hospital, where a CT scan revealed a tumor, stage IV. Shortly after, disappointed with the hospital’s lack of follow up after his diagnosis, John and Mollie sought a second opinion at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Everything changed when I moved my care to Dana-Farber,” he says. “Every person I dealt with was A+, from the receptionist, to the cafeteria workers, to the phlebotomist, to the nurses, and of course, the doctors.”

Under the care of  Kimberly Perez, MD, and Nadine J. McCleary, MD, MPH, John underwent weekly chemotherapy infusions for six months. He lost his hair and beard and suffered from peripheral neuropathy, but felt lucky to experience only occasional, mild nausea. Following chemotherapy, doctors discovered two additional tumors, both of which were treated with forms of radiation.

“The nurses and aides on the infusion team were always supportive and comforting during those difficult times,” John says of his treatment. He is especially grateful for his nurse practitioner, Mike Casey, APRN-BC, FNP, for his thoughtful care during chemotherapy treatments.

“John has responded to treatment incredibly well, and we’ve been pleased to extend his prognosis far past his initial diagnosis,” says Dr. Perez. “He is a wonderful patient—enthusiastic, gracious, and always interested in the latest research. We’re glad John and Mollie found their way to Dana-Farber to get the care and support they needed.”

Now 77, John feels healthy enough to enjoy what he calls a simple life, with plenty of time to garden with Mollie, dine out with friends, and drink fine wine. The peripheral neuropathy lingers, but he no longer requires a cane to walk. And, he says, his hair and beard came back, “better than before.”

Grateful for the care they received, John and Mollie have become avid supporters of Dana-Farber’s mission to defy cancer. They contribute annually to the Hale Family Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and support a program for patients who may not be able to afford hotels, parking, and other out-of-pocket expenses associated with treatment.

“I don’t believe that I defy cancer, but I coexist with it,” John reflects. “I skate on thin ice every day, but I am still skating. I know that one day the ice might crack, but I try not to dwell on it. Instead, I appreciate each day.”

For others facing a cancer diagnosis, John offers his advice: “Get to Dana-Farber as soon as possible, find a good team, and trust your team.”

Join patients like John and support research at Dana-Farber by joining The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.