A Second Chance
Facing pancreatic cancer, Jose Velazquez entrusted his life to an Advocate specialist.
A Surprise Attack
A retired telecommunications engineer, Jose Velazquez takes good care of his health—and gets up weekdays at 4:30 am to work out. He and Rosemary, his wife of 41 years, live in a lovely home in Lombard with their beloved dog, Charlie. The couple’s children, Melissa and Gabriel, are now successful adults who live close enough to visit their parents often—and they do. Jose has every reason to be content with his life. But less than two years ago, he got some very bad news.
It started with the symptoms of a gallbladder attack. Jose saw his primary care physician, Anthony Lin, MD, a member of Advocate Physician Partners. Dr. Lin sent him to Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital for an ultrasound of the gallbladder and a consultation with surgeon Mohan Airan, MD, an expert in laparoscopic surgery to remove the gallbladder.
Dr. Airan listened carefully, and Jose’s description of pain that radiated around his back made the doctor suspect something else was wrong. A second ultrasound proved him right: Not only did the gallbladder have to go, but there was also a tumor on the pancreas. Upon hearing this, Jose says, “I was devastated, anxious, depressed—a little of everything. Then I started to worry.”
In Good Hands
Jose needed a pancreatic surgery specialist, so Dr. Lin referred him to Ajay Maker, MD, at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center’s Creticos Cancer Center. Jose’s very protective son, Gabriel, researched oncology surgeons and went with him to see Dr. Maker. Favorably impressed, Gabriel pronounced, “He’s the one you want, Dad.”
Was the tumor on Jose’s pancreas cancerous? Over a few weeks that seemed like an eternity, test after test came back inconclusive. He was wheeled into surgery on August 20—still not knowing if the tumor was malignant or benign. Trusting in Dr. Maker’s judgment and not wanting to have another surgical procedure, Jose authorized him to remove any organs he needed to. That turned out to be his gallbladder, his spleen, and part of the pancreas, along with the tumor.
Throughout Jose’s hospital stay, he came to appreciate not only the clinical expertise, but also the kindness of his surgeon. “Dr. Maker would come into my room to talk with me. He expressed genuine concern and answered all of my questions, whether it took 10 minutes or an hour,” Jose says.
Although he was required to walk twice a day, Jose chose to push himself with a personal goal of six times a day. But he was still on strong medications and hooked up to an IV—and too weak to walk alone.
Fortunately, the nursing staff at Illinois Masonic Medical Center responded cheerfully to requests for walking assistance any time of day or night. Jose says, “They were all just great—and so supportive.”
Good News At Last
After several days, Dr. Maker reported that the pancreatic tumor was, indeed, cancerous. Although this was hard to hear, there was also some good news: All of the cancer was removed surgically and no chemotherapy or radiation was required. It was a slow-growing type of tumor, so periodic scans would show whether any further treatment was needed.
A Changed Life
Determined to get well and stay well, Jose got on with his life. Just a year after the surgery, he and Rosemary were given a trip to Italy for their 40th anniversary, and he felt well enough to enjoy the attractions of Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, Siena, Rome and Sicily. Over the winter of 2014—one of the harshest on record—he kept busy driving a snow plow!
Without a gallbladder or a spleen—and only part of his pancreas—Jose must follow certain dietary restrictions (no sugary or greasy foods) and take some special precautions to protect his immune system. But he regards that as a small price to pay for his health. Grateful to be alive, Jose says of his scare, “It changed my life, but it also gave me a second chance. I feel pretty healthy, pretty good.”
First published: Spring 2014