One man's fight against pancreatic cancer
Sometimes a minor irritation can turn out to be the biggest test of your life. Mike Irwin learned this firsthand, as a mysterious back pain turned into his worst nightmare.
"I used to be as normal as can be," said Irwin, a 56-year-old father, husband and upstanding member of the Mequon community. Irwin is the vice president of global supply chain in the Operations and Engineering Services organization for Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee, the world's largest company dedicated to industrial automation and information.
In this position, he manages over 800 people globally and travels internationally every other month. He is a man of great dedication and skill, a man to be respected and adored. Unfortunately for Irwin, the game called life became a whirlwind of unexpected woes.
It all began with really intense back pain that radiated around to the front. Next, he began having trouble eating and began to lose weight.
"I couldn't eat much at a time – a few bites and I was full," said Irwin. For the next few months, his troubled eating sparked him and his wife, Melissa Irwin, to get his heart, back and everything else checked out. Eventually, on the day before Thanksgiving 2013, his doctors sent him for an MRI, during which they injected him with a special dye that sticks to cancer. Irwin immediately knew that something was wrong when the technician told him to go see his doctor right away.
Irwin drove to his doctor's office in Grafton to receive the news. The doctor announced that Irwin had pancreatic cancer. Mike and Melissa began calling specialists to form a treatment plan.
"Melissa was down at the neighbors', and I told her you need to come home – we need to talk," said Irwin. "I sat on the closet floor and cried, and told her I had pancreatic cancer, the same thing that had killed my dad."
When Irwin was a freshman at Wabash College, his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He dropped out of school to help his mom raise his brothers and, within six months, Irwin's dad passed away from the incredibly aggressive disease.
"That was really all I knew about pancreatic cancer at the time," said Irwin. "I really felt like this was probably a death sentence."
Pancreatic cancer is one of the trickiest kinds of cancer. There are rarely early detection signs and no screening method to test if a person has it and catch it early. Typically, the only time it causes symptoms is if it's in the head of the pancreas, which often causes jaundice. The only non-invasive way to find it is to use a specific cancer marker called a CA 19-9, but an elevated level is not a definitive diagnosis. Final diagnosis must be done with a biopsy via endoscopy – where the patient is sedated and a tube placed into the stomach so the doctor can access the tumor.
Despite his initial grim outlook, Irwin began fighting for his life. There was a short period of time between his diagnosis and the time the treatments started. His first set of doctors weren't very successful in their approach. The doctors chose to place Irwin on a very aggressive chemotherapy treatment, which can make the some patients' health deteriorate quickly.
"There's a whole medication list just to help his functionality," said Irwin's wife Melissa. "Between not managing the chemo correctly and not managing the medicine correctly, he got worse."
Melissa butted heads with and questioned his doctors a lot.
"I found out that he should've gotten a certain type of pre-medication, which he wasn't given," said Melissa. After the first round of chemotherapy failed with the first set of doctors, Melissa set out to find new doctors in the hopes of getting better results.
At this point, Irwin was so sick from the side effects of his treatment that he required hospitalization.
"I was so weak; I lost 60 pounds in a matter of about three months," said Irwin.
After a week, the doctor came in and told him that the chemo wasn't working; in fact, his cancer marker was going up.
"He felt that I was too weak for further treatment, and he sent me home to die," said Irwin. "So, from Thanksgiving to sometime in January, I went from a 190-pound, healthy, working father, to 130 pounds – sent home to die – in a matter of three months."
Irwin wasn't happy with his surgeon, so he found an even better one. Luckily for him – and anyone else in the Milwaukee area with this unfortunate disease – the Chair of Surgery at Froedtert, Dr. Douglas B. Evans, is considered one of the best pancreatic surgeons in the U.S. Possibly even in the world.
Irwin was incoherent at this point, and was in hospice care for five days. Melissa Irwin began doing lots of research and stumbled across the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a nationwide network of people dedicated to advancing research, supporting patients and creating hope for those affected by pancreatic cancer.
"That was the only website that was upbeat – everything else was all doom and gloom," said Melissa said. "That's how I started to connect with people."
The Irwins finally met Dr. Evans, and he explained to them that Irwin's cancer is inoperable; however, it could still be treated. Evans set them up with Irwin's current oncologist, the man who literally saved Mike's life.
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