Deb Farr started experiencing bloating, digestion issues, and pain in her rib cage and lower back in summer 2022, which she chalked up to being her life’s new normal, after many of her friends experienced similar post-menopausal symptoms in their late 50s. She decided to make an appointment with her primary care physician after her pain began to worsen and her husband shared concerns. After the first ultrasound showed lesions on her pancreas and liver, Deb was referred for a follow-up CT scan.
“I was white as a ghost when I heard that I had cysts on my pancreas and liver,” she recalls. “I was confident that they must be benign, and I couldn’t understand why the imaging tech was wishing me luck, when they were just doing a standard CT scan to confirm that they were benign cysts. It all came together for me when I got the call that these lesions were stage IV pancreatic cancer.”
Deb and her husband were beyond stunned to hear this news. “I am too young and too healthy to have cancer!” she thought. “The hardest conversation was telling my two daughters that I have terminal cancer. I reassured them that I was young, healthy, and ready to fight. I had to tell them that there was no cure, but it could be managed, and we would fight as a family, with Dana-Farber guiding us, as long as we can.”
Pictured: Left, Deb (third from right) with her family. Right, Deb visits Dana-Farber for her first round of chemotherapy in fall 2022
As a 57-year-old patient, Deb experienced a lot of anxiety and was angry that cancer had the chance of getting in the way of major life milestones on the horizon, like watching her children get married, meeting her future grandchildren, and buying a house with her husband on Cape Cod after retirement. She credits some of these nerves to searching the internet as well, which she found full of worst-case scenarios that don’t apply to each individual patient’s diagnosis. Through these nerves and anxiety, though, she also felt confident that her age could play to her advantage, since the average age of pancreatic cancer patients at the time of their diagnosis is 70, per the American Cancer Society. Deb saw her tight-knit support system from her family, friends, and coworkers and her faith in God as keys to tolerating the difficult treatment protocols to come.
Deb was introduced to her oncologist, Harshabad (Harsh) Singh, MBBS, when she was referred to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Dr. Singh was eager to move quickly since Deb’s diagnosis was stage IV. She recalls that the first two months after diagnosis were a whirlwind, with constant blood tests; additional CT scans, biopsies, and numerous new prescriptions and pills to be taken; and the installation of her Port-A-Cath. Since then, she has visited Dana-Farber for over 50 hours of chemotherapy every other week and has opted into the Precision Promise clinical trial, which was designed to evaluate the effects of multiple regimens in metastatic pancreatic cancer. “Enrolling in the trial was not a difficult decision for me,” Deb shares. “I am willing to do anything that will be a differentiator to help me defy the odds that I read about on the internet. It also provides me with a way of giving back and giving myself the best possible outcome. Dana-Farber needs my data to see if this medicine and the agents they are testing work in order to help me and future pancreatic cancer patients.”
Dr. Singh is very grateful to patients like Deb who are willing to participate in trials like this that help move pancreatic cancer research forward and provide new options for patients. His research in the Hale Family Center for Pancreatic Cancer Research focuses on developing new treatments, while helping patients to live longer and with fewer side effects from treatment. “Deb just gets it,” shares Dr. Singh proudly. “The unknown of clinical trials can sometimes be scary for patients, especially when there’s a chance that they could be the control for the study as in Deb’s case, but she understands that the important discoveries made will continue to provide hope to everyone impacted by pancreatic cancer.”
Deb won’t deny that her treatment is rigorous, and that each chemotherapy treatment brings negative side effects like vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea. Though this is the case, she is focused on the positives. “I have no reason to complain,” she says. “My treatment is extremely intense, but I can see it’s working from my stabilized bloodwork, decreased tumor markers, and scans to date. In general, I have more good days than bad days, and the bad days are tolerable thanks to my care team, the medications I’m prescribed to minimize the side effects, and my family who has been with me every step of the way.”
Pictured: Left, Deb (right) posing with both daughters at her oldest daughter’s wedding in September 2023. Right, Deb at her 20th round of chemotherapy in August 2023
For Deb, Dana-Farber has been the bright light and calming force that she has needed to keep moving forward. “I can’t believe that it’s been a year since my initial diagnosis. My advice to newly diagnosed patients is to disregard the statistics that you read on the internet, advocate for yourself, and do your best to create a relationship with your care team where you aren’t afraid to ask scary or difficult questions,” she shares. “I got a second opinion on treatment options at another well-known Boston-area hospital. The difference between the two facilities was night and day. One had wooden benches and made you take a number like the deli line while you wait for infusions. Then there was Dana-Farber, with a very calming environment full of people who care; patients going through similar experiences that I can compare notes with; and a physical environment that’s full of artwork, natural light, and comfortable chairs for you and your guests. For me, there was no question that Dana-Farber was the right choice, and they continue to prove this through every encounter.”
As a Needham resident, Deb considers herself very lucky to be less than a half hour drive away from Dana-Farber’s main campus in the Longwood Medical Area. She also has the option to visit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute – Chestnut Hill campus, which is even more convenient for her transfusions of fluids and CT scans, and patients south of the city can visit the Hale Family Center at Dana-Farber’s Foxborough location. “Chestnut Hill is another amazing and beautiful Dana-Farber facility,” Deb explains. “I am so blessed to live in this market where I have these state-of-the-art facilities and access to world-renowned care right in my backyard.” She also gives major kudos to the schedulers, who are very thoughtful and do their best to minimize the length of on-campus visits. “I remember one time where a scheduler waited to meet me after her shift, because I was finishing up treatment and she wanted to have the chance to meet me in person,” she recalls. “That personal touch made me feel so good!”
Deb and her family are fully aware that Dana-Farber’s “special sauce” comes from the support of so many generous individuals in the community, who are allowing them to continue to find new treatment options and cures. “By giving to Dana-Farber, you are helping them stay on the cutting edge of research,” Deb says. She encourages the community to continue to stay involved, sharing: “Your support can help me to beat the odds and get to year five, seven, and beyond. That Jimmy that you see in the Jimmy Fund campaigns could be you tomorrow. I never thought last year that I would be Jimmy, but here I am. Please remember that you would want this world-renowned option if you were in my shoes. So, help someone else by giving anything you can, because you’re ultimately paying it forward to help yourself or a family member who could be affected by cancer at any moment.”
Support patients like Deb this Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month 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.