Early detection is key for pancreatic cancer patient

Patient 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 Kim's doctor informed him that he believed Kim had an undiagnosed cancer and they'd need to run more tests, it wasn't a complete surprise.

Doctors diagnosed Kim'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 Kim's twin brother, Tim Bate, with a tumor in his pancreas in February 2018. Tim had a stroke following a biopsy of this tumor and died shortly after.

Despite this familial history, Kim 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," says Bate. So, when his biopsy came back negative, Kim 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, Kim's doctor called him to tell him he did have cancer, and it was likely pancreatic cancer. The doctor walked Kim through a few different treatments.

A change in plans

After discussing these treatment options with his doctor and family, Kim 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," says Bate. 

"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," says 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 Kim's pancreas was stage 2 cancer. Moreover, the cancer had spread to some lymph nodes around Kim's pancreas.

Luckily for Kim, 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," says Dr. Klute.

Surgery, chemotherapy and beyond

Transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon Luciano Vargas, MD, performed surgery on Kim to extract the cancer, which included removing the tail of Kim'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 Kim's pancreas or was larger, did take time for Kim to recuperate and get his energy back.

Once he felt adequately recovered, Kim met with Dr. Klute and subsequently began chemotherapy in December 2018. For six months, Kim 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," says Dr. Klute, "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 are also why pancreatic cancer is so dangerous, especially if not detected early in its development. This danger is also why Kim wasn't necessarily comforted by catching his cancer in stage 2. What gave Kim hope was his family, friends and care team.

During their first meeting, Dr. Klute told Kim that the goal of their treatment was to cure his cancer. While Kim was shocked by Dr. Klute’s directness, it also inspired him throughout his treatment. In September 2023, Kim 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," says Dr. Klute. "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," says Kim. "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."

Everything you need to heal

"Particularly for pancreatic cancer, our multidisciplinary approach sets Nebraska Medicine apart," says Dr. Klute. "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 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," says Dr. Klute.

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," says Dr. Klute. "There's reason to hope and shoot for this optimal outcome."

Kim agrees, "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," says Bate.