By Emily Williams
According to the National Cancer Institute, the percent of patients who survived pancreatic cancer from 2008 to 2014 was 8.5 percent. The estimated number of new cases for 2018 is 55,440, with an estimated 44,330 deaths.
It’s no wonder Lessley Hynson sees herself as incredibly fortunate to have survived pancreatic cancer for the past 11½ years.
With a passion to give back to UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she was treated, Hynson spends much of her time working with support organizations that help fund the center’s mission to cure cancer and support patients.
Hynson has been an active member of the center’s advisory board since 2014 and recently was named Volunteer of the Year. She also is a member of the Robert E. Reed Foundation Gastrointestinal Oncology Research Foundation.
This year, Hynson will serve as one of the foundation’s 2018 Faces of GI Cancer and will be honored at the annual Finish the Fight event Nov. 18.
Henson knows that she was fortunate to have gotten an early diagnosis in 2006.
Not prone to headaches, Hynson, along with her husband, Bobby, went to her local hospital in Laurel, Mississippi, with a terrible headache and a high temperature and blood pressure. She had a CT scan and was diagnosed with renal stenosis and had a stent put in. Her doctor, who was trained at UAB, then ordered a second CT scan and noticed something in her pancreas.
Not wanting to cut any corners, he set up an appointment for Henson with a colleague at UAB. After conducting tests and confirming the presence of a tumor in her pancreas, the oncologist brought in a surgeon, Dr. Martin Heslin, who gave Hynson a few options.
“He said I had three choices. We could do nothing, because it wasn’t an emergency; we could do a biopsy and test it; or we could do a Whipple,” she said.
Hynson didn’t miss a beat when deciding to do a Whipple procedure, a surgery that removes the head of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, the gall bladder and part of the bile duct, then reattaches the remaining organs for normal digestion.
“Of course, I immediately said, ‘Let’s do the Whipple,’” while Bobby was saying, ‘Hang on a minute. Let’s get some more information,’” Hynson said, laughing. “So, I asked Dr. Heslin what he would do, and he said he would do the Whipple.”
Giving Heslin some time to gather a team, Hynson had her surgery about a week later, beginning her journey into cancer treatment.
Support Systems are Key
After surgery, chemo and a clinical trial, which all take their toll on the body, Hynson said that what she remembers most from that period is the support system around her that made the experience the best it could be.
“I was so lucky to have Bobby with me,” she said. “He was always doing a tremendous amount of research, and in all of his searching for the finest surgeons and clinical trials, it was all at UAB.”
She added that her team of physicians, nurses and surgeons never missed a beat, and having them all work under the same roof gave her the opportunity to build a family at the hospital. Having a home at the hospital remains important, since she has a monthly appointment to monitor her health.
When she walks up to check-in, someone tells her that Alfreda is waiting for her in the lab or Gerald is waiting to start her CT scan, both of whom are regularly in touch, helping her schedule her appointments.
“At my lowest and worst, Dr. Heslin’s nurse, Gina, would tell me how pretty I looked. That kindness went a long way and always put a spring in my step,” Henson said, adding that Heslin’s current nurse, Julie Kemp, is always there for Henson to offer support and answer questions.
Above all, Hynson had her husband alongside her through the fight. On the days when she wasn’t at her best, he could make things feel all right, and on her better days, he could cheer her up with a visit to an antique store or a day-trip to Florence.
“There are many patients who don’t have that support, and they just want someone to talk with about anything at all,” Hynson said. “I’ll visit them and we talk about their treatment or Trump or wanting a cold beer.”
From experience, she said, having visitors is all about forcing your mind away from where you are, in a hospital receiving treatment for a potentially terminal situation.
“This has been the most marvelous journey,” she said. “There are many people who are not going to get the same news I did, who are not surviving, and anything I can do to help provide comfort to them on their journey, I will do.”
As a volunteer, one of Hynson’s favorite jobs is to visit with patients in the hospital and help host dinners with the advisory board at Hope Lodge.
“It’s so special to see patients enjoy themselves,” she said. “Even if they don’t have a hopeful prognosis, there is still hope and joy there.”
Having been a patient herself, she knows that one of the most important things she can do for others is be there to chat about anything.
“When you’re going through treatments at the hospital, you can feel closed off from the world,” she said. “It’s amazing what just a little bit of chatting can do.”
It isn’t just about volunteering time for Hynson; being able to use her story to advocate and fundraise for the Robert E. Reed Foundation is just as important.
She was first connected with the group through Dr. Heslin, who invited her to attend her first Finish the Fight event. The late Robert E. Reed died of pancreatic cancer, and his family started the foundation to fund research for all GI cancers. Hynson found she had a lot in common with the group that surrounded her at the event.
“I remember two Russian researchers who worked in one of the labs introduced themselves to me. They already knew my name because of their work and said it was the first time they had ever met a pancreatic cancer survivor,” she said.
The funds raised by the organization through the event as well as their other efforts support research to better treat and hopefully cure GI cancers, including pancreatic.
“There are so many people who did not have the prognosis that I have,” Hynson said. “There are not very many survivors, so when you hear that diagnosis it is terrifying. It is an area of cancer research that hasn’t been very well-served, but it’s getting better with help from people and foundations who are providing funds.”
The clinical trial that Hynson participated in during her treatment technically ended years before her doctors used it, because too few patients survived. Some of the last remaining doses of the vaccine were sent to UAB and had been sitting on ice before Hynson was introduced to them.
It was either the vaccine or the grace of God that helped Henson survive, she said, but either way, it’s a cause to help create more opportunities for researchers to create potentially life-changing trials.
“UAB has given me my life,” Hynson said. “So, I’m happy to give them my time and money in order to help others.”