Originally created 06/11/04

Surgery erases man's disease



When Jim McMurrain learned he had pancreatic cancer in November, all he could think of was a former banking colleague who also was diagnosed with the disease.

The colleague died within five months of his diagnosis.

"I figured I'd be dead in April if I was like (him)," said Mr. McMurrain, 51, a mortgage loan officer with SouthTrust Bank.

But thanks to a successful but risky operation that removed the cancerous growth on his pancreas and parts of several internal organs, Mr. McMurrain is one of the few people who can say he beat pancreatic cancer, a disease often called "the silent killer" for its frighteningly low survival rate.

"In general, 90 percent of people with pancreatic cancer are dead within a year," said Paul Fischer, of the Center for Primary Care in Evans, who diagnosed Mr. McMurrain's cancer. "Once you discover it, it's often too late."

National statistics on the disease are disheartening.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that 31,860 new cases of pancreatic cancer will develop in 2004. Nearly all these cases, an estimated 31,270, will be fatal, the statistics revealed.

Today, Mr. McMurrain knows he is a lucky man.

"We just thank the good Lord," he said. "He's been mighty gracious to us."

LAST FALL, MR. McMurrain's health began to decline. A diabetic, he became constipated and experienced abdominal pain. His urine was dark, and his skin and eyes turned yellow with jaundice, he said.

Mr. McMurrain blamed his blood pressure medication and stopped taking it, but his health problems continued.

When his whole body started itching uncontrollably and massive amounts of Benadryl didn't alleviate his misery, Mr. McMurrain went to the doctor the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The doctor on duty told him something was affecting his liver and kidneys and recommended he see Dr. Fischer.

An ultrasound and a CAT scan revealed something on Mr. McMurrain's pancreas, a major digestive organ. Dr. Fischer told him he thought it was a tumor obstructing the flow of bile from his liver into his intestines. The liver had reverted to dumping the bile into his bloodstream, which the kidneys could not filter out, Dr. Fischer told Mr. McMurrain. The bile was then distributed into Mr. McMurrain's tissue and muscles, causing his itching, he said.

On Dec. 5, an endoscopic surgical procedure confirmed a cancerous growth on his pancreas, he said.

THE NEWS DEVASTATED the McMurrain family.

"It's not something you want to believe," said his wife, Judy McMurrain, 53, on hearing the diagnosis.

The news was even harder to bear because Mrs. McMurrain had undergone treatment for thyroid cancer several years before, and their oldest grandson had recently undergone successful surgery for a rare spinal disorder.

Mr. McMurrain made sure his will was in order and went ahead with a 10-hour, life-saving operation, called the Whipple Procedure, at St. Joseph Hospital on Dec. 15.

The procedure removed 40 percent of his pancreas and his gallbladder, Mr. McMurrain said. It also involved the removal of part of the intestine, the common bile duct and the duodenum, according to the Johns Hopkins University Pathology Department's Web site.

Mr. McMurrain said his intestines were sewed to the pancreas, with the stomach and bile duct retied to the intestines.

Not everyone is a perfect candidate for the Whipple Procedure, but because Mr. McMurrain's cancer began in the head of the pancreas, doctors were able to resect the organ more easily.

Doctors caught the disease early, so it didn't spread, Dr. Fischer said.

Yet during the operation, a surgeon thought Mr. McMurrain's pancreas was too inflamed to continue the procedure.

Mr. McMurrain said he learned later that the lead surgeon, David Crist, told the doubtful surgeon he felt "led by the Holy Spirit to continue."

He partially credits his survival to Dr. Crist's unwavering faith and his positive attitude during his recovery. The family's prayer also was instrumental, he said.

"We fought this all together," said daughter Jennifer Stafford, 30, noting that the family was humbled by the power of prayer. Dr. Crist was on extended leave from his office and could not be reached for comment.

SINCE THE OPERATION, Mr. McMurrain has lost 50 pounds. He is no longer able to eat the fatty and oily foods he enjoyed so much before his diagnosis. He says he also tries to avoid stressful situations.

Mr. McMurrain is relatively young to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Dr. Fischer said. It typically strikes the elderly and is one of the primary reasons why older people's health declines.

The disease tends to be hereditary and might be related to a high-fat diet, Dr. Fischer said.

There isn't a whole lot that can be done to prevent it, and worse, there is no good test to screen for it, he said.

Mr. McMurrain thinks a poor diet and stressful environment contributed to his cancer.

"You're talking to Mr. Eat-on-the-run, Mr. Mortgage Guy, the guy who takes care of everybody's problems but mine," he said.

After the Whipple Procedure, Mr. McMurrain began months-long regimens of intravenous chemotherapy and radiation.

Today, his hair has grown back, and his energy levels are up. He works from home in the mornings and tries to go to the office in the afternoon.

Recent tests have shown cancer-free tissue around his pancreas, but Mr. McMurrain is only cautiously optimistic.

Pancreatic cancer "has a notorious history of coming back and getting you," he said with a smile.

"I hope I'm cancer free."

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.