My name is Lee Zeidman. I am a Strategic Communications Consultant and pancreatic cancer survivor. I’m a native Washingtonian. I was part of the team that launched CNN in 1980. I also was a local sportscaster early in my career in Washington, D.C. and New York City.
What were your symptoms of pancreatic cancer? What made you want to check it out?
I came down with an acute case of pancreatitis while on a business trip on the west coast. It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt – and I’ve broken bones playing sports. I went to the emergency room. I flew home to New York City the next day and was admitted into Weill-Cornell Medical Center where I spent ten days in the hospital.
Does your family have a history of cancer?
There is no history of pancreatic cancer in my family.
What did you think it was initially?
I thought it was an upset stomach from too much fried food after an evening at a sports bar.
What were your thoughts and reaction to your diagnosis?
The doctors at Weill-Cornell diagnosed acute pancreatitis and told me it was manageable. My wife was concerned that it was cancer. She insisted they do a biopsy to rule out cancer. The doctor insisted there was no relationship between pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer (this was back in 2013, now doctors routinely look for cancer when treating pancreatitis). Grudgingly, the doctor agreed to do a biopsy after my wife repeatedly insisted. I was put on a liquid diet and sent home. Two days later the doctor called and told us to come back to the hospital, they needed to have an urgent conversation about my health. At that moment I knew the doctors had been wrong – I knew it was pancreatic cancer. The doctor refused to acknowledge the diagnosis and the news had to be delivered face-to-face. I quickly realized that had my wife not insisted on the biopsy, I might have died from pancreatic cancer within months.
Did you know much about pancreatic cancer before?
I knew very little. I knew a few folks who had it and all of them died. I assumed it was a death sentence.
What was life like before your diagnosis? What has changed?
Before my diagnosis, I had a normal life. I traveled the world on business. I did not watch my diet or weight. Cancer surgery left me diabetic and forced me to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Cancer has a way of focusing one’s attention on just how precious life is. It helped to value my time with family and friends much more.
What has helped you most along your journey?
It’s never lost on me just how lucky I was. Every day I am thankful that my wife pushed the doctors to do that biopsy. It saved my life.
What has been the hardest part of your diagnosis?
Getting diagnosed with any cancer has a surreal way of focusing your attention. According to my biopsy and scans, I had a very large, fast-growing tumor. The doctor said my pancreas was too inflamed to attempt surgery and I would have to wait a month or two. Then I was told I might have as little as six months to live. Waiting for surgery was agonizing. Even worse, the doctor told me I should “get my things in order.” That was a shock. I thought they only said that in the movies. I was stunned and dejected. I felt like a dead man walking. There were no resources online for patients in 2013. If you googled pancreatic cancer, you didn’t find anything good. Because I was a former journalist, I started doing intense research. We decided to switch hospitals from Weill-Cornell to Memorial Sloan Kettering. I was diagnosed in early March of 2013. I had my surgery in early May of 2013. The eight agonizing weeks of waiting for surgery were unbearable. Each week I had to have a CAT scan to assess the severity of the tumor and each week the news got worse. The final CAT scan before surgery revealed a tumor the size of my fist that had infiltrated my stomach. There wasn’t a great deal of hope. I tried to be pragmatic and take things one step, one test, one office visit at a time, but it was dreadfully depressing. The surgeon said that he wouldn’t know if the cancer was operable until he was in there. He said there was a good chance that the tumor might be inoperable. If that were the case, they would just close me up and treat me with chemo in an effort to buy time. On the day of my surgery, things seemed pretty bleak. I tried to stay positive, but I had no idea what news the surgery would bring. Dr. Humon Fong and the surgical team at Sloan Kettering saved my life. The tumor was very large but had not metastasized. They removed 90% of my pancreas, 15% of my stomach, and all of my gallbladder. In recovery, Dr. Fong checked in on me. I asked him when I would start chemo. He said, “You’re not going to have chemo. We don’t give chemo to people who don’t have cancer. You don’t have cancer anymore. We got all of it. You are now cancer-free!” I was stunned by the news but overcome with joy. The doctor said in 25 years he had never seen a case like mine. A tumor so large but operable. He said I was a very lucky man. I was in the 1% of the 1%.
What piece(s) of advice would you tell patients that are living with pancreatic cancer?
Get the best medical advice available. Seek out one of NPF’s Centers of Excellence! Get second and third opinions and don’t be afraid to be an intelligent consumer of medical services. Make sure you advocate for yourself as a patient or that you have a spouse or partner who isn’t afraid to ask questions and advocate for you. The decisions all belong to you!
How are you feeling now?
My surgery was 9 years ago. It gave me a new lease on life. I still go to Sloan Kettering for annual check-ups, but I remain cancer-free. I am diabetic and wear an insulin pump, but that’s a small price to pay for surviving pancreatic cancer.
How did you and your family learn about the National Pancreas Foundation?
Shortly after I was discharged from the hospital a college friend, who is a professional fundraiser, asked me to serve as Master of Ceremony for NPF’s first New York City gala. At the event, I met a lot of wonderful people, including Dr. Eileen O’Reilly who had consulted on my case at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I heard astounding stories from amazing people who demonstrated great courage during lengthy, painful battles with pancreatic cancer. As I listened to them, I was struck by just how lucky I was. Some of them had gone through years of treatment. Some suffered relapses and after thinking they had beaten pancreatic cancer had to undergo more courses of chemo. I really was lucky. My bout with cancer was short and cured by one surgery. These patients were heroes to me. They were genuinely inspirational. Shortly after that event, I was asked to join NPF’s national Board of Directors. I gladly accepted. I’ve been honored to serve on NPF’s board for the last nine years.