Pancreatic cancer: Early detection is key

Kim Bate

Kim Bate

When Kim Bate went to an appointment with his family physician in October 2018, he didn’t consider the worst-case scenario. Bate had a rash, but nothing too extreme. Still, when Bate’s doctor informed him that he believed Bate had an undiagnosed cancer and they’d need to run more tests, it wasn’t a complete surprise.

Doctors diagnosed Bate’s sister, Betty Lou Weis, with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2017. Before her diagnosis, she had experienced many medical issues. Although providers searched thoroughly for the cause of her problems, they couldn’t find what was ailing her. Because they caught the cancer so late, Betty Lou died only a few weeks after her diagnosis. Likewise, doctors diagnosed Bate’s twin brother, Tim Bate, with a tumor in his pancreas in February 2018. Tim Bate had a stroke following a biopsy of this tumor and died shortly after.

Despite this familial history, Bate wasn’t too apprehensive as his doctor performed a series of scans and, eventually, a biopsy of his pancreas. “I had a rash, but I felt fine for the most part,” Bate said. So, when his biopsy came back negative, Bate breathed a sigh of relief and tried to move on with his life while the specter of cancer lingered in the back of his mind.

Unfortunately, the biopsy had resulted in a false negative. Two weeks after the procedure, Bate’s doctor called him to tell him he did have cancer, and it was likely pancreatic cancer. The doctor walked Bate through a few different treatment options.

After discussing these treatments with his doctor and family, Bate scheduled surgery for November 2018. But his nephew, a physician in Neligh, Nebraska, urged him to seek a second opinion with Nebraska Medicine. “He told me if I don’t go to the med center, he was going to come get me and take me there himself,” Bate said. 

“So, I called the med center and made an appointment, then called my doctor for a referral. They got me in right away, and I met with Dr. (Luciano) Vargas to discuss my options. From that first appointment to my surgery, it was only about 10 days.”

“When Kim first came to Nebraska Medical Center, it wasn’t obvious he had cancer, but the mass on his pancreas was worrisome enough to warrant further imaging,” said medical oncologist and hematologist Kelsey Klute, MD.

Although this mass looked like a cystic lesion, the doctors at Nebraska Medical Center confirmed the growth on Bate’s pancreas was stage 2 cancer. Moreover, the cancer had spread to some lymph nodes around Bate’s pancreas.

Luckily for Bate, catching cancer in an early stage, especially pancreatic cancer, is vital to optimal patient outcomes. “We know that if we catch pancreas cancer when it’s very small – if the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller – our odds of curing that cancer with chemotherapy and surgery are dramatically higher,” Dr. Klute said.

Transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon Luciano Vargas, MD, performed surgery on Bate to extract the cancer, which included removing the tail of Bate’s pancreas, his spleen and several lymph nodes. This surgery, while not as complicated as it could’ve been if the tumor had been on the head of Bate’s pancreas or was larger, did take time for Bate to recuperate and get his energy back.

Once he felt adequately recovered, Bate met with Dr. Klute and subsequently began chemotherapy in December 2018. For six months, Bate and his wife drove 45 minutes every two weeks from Lincoln to Omaha for his chemo sessions. Chemotherapy is a vital component of pancreatic cancer treatment because of the cancer’s unique properties.

“The tricky thing with pancreas cancer,” Dr. Klute said, “is that even with a 2 centimeter or smaller tumor, patients can have microscopic cancer cells elsewhere, which is very different from other types of cancer like breast or colon cancer.”

These microscopic cancer cells also are why pancreatic cancer is so dangerous, especially if not detected early in its development. This danger also is why Bate wasn’t necessarily comforted by catching his cancer in stage 2. What gave Bate hope was his family, friends and care team.

During their first meeting, Dr. Klute told Bate that the goal of their treatment was to cure his cancer. While Bate was shocked by Dr. Klute’s directness, it also inspired him throughout his treatment. In September 2023, Bate celebrated five years of being cancer-free following his surgery and 12 chemotherapy sessions.

“I think it’s important for any patient with pancreas cancer to know the best-case scenario for their treatment,” Dr. Klute said. “Pancreas cancer is a tough disease, and unfortunately, even with our most aggressive treatment, we can’t cure every patient. Still, even when you’ve been diagnosed with pancreas cancer, it’s important to remember you’re not a statistic and every individual is different.”

“That’s what gave me hope,” Bate said. “This brilliant doctor and the rest of my care team knew they had something to offer that would give me hope. Dr. Klute was bold, and, in her boldness, she gave me what I needed to get on the road to healing.”

“Particularly for pancreatic cancer, our multidisciplinary approach sets Nebraska Medicine apart,” Dr. Klute said. “It’s a one-stop shop, where in a single day, patients can meet with physicians, genetic counselors, dietitians and palliative care experts. There’s nowhere else in the state that’s taking care of people with pancreatic cancer this way.”

This unique process allows patients visiting the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center to understand exactly what their team recommends for their specific cancer. “For every patient we see, 20 to 30 providers have looked at their scans, heard their story and given their input,” Dr. Klute said.

Many times, even for those with severe cases like late-stage pancreatic cancer, patients leave the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center with some positive news. “Even if you’ve been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreas cancer, and we can’t cure you, we’ve seen patients live with the disease for two, three, four or even five years,” Dr. Klute said. “There’s reason to hope and shoot for this optimal outcome.”

Bate agreed, “The thing anyone diagnosed with cancer has to know is that there’s hope. The hope may not be for you to survive, but it can be for the next person to gain from what you’re going through.

“I’m alive today because there are people 20 years ago who went through terrible surgeries and chemotherapy they didn’t survive. So, even if your diagnosis isn’t good, you have an obligation and an opportunity to work with Nebraska Medicine for the good of the next generation of cancer patients,” Bate said.

1 comment

  1. Doug Meyer says:

    Awsome hospital. They also saved my life from leukemia diagnosis that other Dr’s could not. Forever grateful.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.