Mark and Kathy

Mark - Pancreatic Cancer Survivor

When Mark Fishman, MD, was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer March 21, 2016, he and his wife, Kathy, were aware of the frightening statistics: The five-year survival rate was only 8 percent. And because symptoms do not appear until the disease has spread, many people have only a few months remaining after their diagnosis.

Yet today, more than three years later, Mark still works four days a week, goes to the gym regularly, and spends much of his free time enjoying his family. His condition is stable, and being treated much like a serious chronic disease.

A primary care physician for many years, Mark had more knowledge than most when it came to choosing where he would receive treatment. He chose Virginia Mason because the survival rates for pancreatic cancer here are twice the national average, and because of the expertise and stellar reputation of medical oncologist Vincent Picozzi, MD.

“I don't know anyone who knows more about his subspecialty than he does,” Mark said. “And I'm a physician, so I think that's high praise.”

“Seattle has good cancer care in general...But I think that the personal care we get from Virginia Mason separates them from other places. The level of expertise for what I have is probably unmatched.”

At the time of his diagnosis, Mark had lesions on his liver and lung, in addition to the mass on his pancreas. Surgery was not an option. Instead, Dr. Picozzi put him on an unusual protocol: He used two different combinations of chemotherapy drugs, one for eight weeks, then the other for eight weeks, back and forth. After 48 weeks, Mark's CT scans were clean.

But his tumor markers remain high. Mark continues to gets twice-monthly infusions of strong chemotherapy drugs, and has new scans every eight weeks. After more than 77 treatments, they've gotten to know every nurse who works in the infusion center.

“The nurses are just fantastic,” Kathy said. “They are so caring and kind, and they listen, really listen.”

While he doesn't have quite the energy he once did, Mark has had few side effects, and continues to lead an active life. Throughout treatment, he's worked closely with an oncology dietitian, and has learned how targeted nutrition and supplements help him tolerate chemotherapy.

“Seattle has good cancer care in general,” Mark said. “But I think that the personal care we get from Virginia Mason separates them from other places. The level of expertise for what I have is probably unmatched.”

Mark believes positive energy is also important in fighting the cancer. He meditates every night and practices positive visualization techniques. He also focuses on the many things for which he is grateful. As a result, he sleeps well at night and is never sad or frightened. Topping his long gratitude list is his wife, children and the latest joys in his life: two young grandsons.

“I wouldn't be doing well without them, especially Kathy,” he said of his wife of 46 years. “She is my support and my strength. She tends to nag often, and watches me like a hawk, but it is all good. Her love and devotion is never-ending. She keeps me going.”

While Kathy has adapted to the “new normal” of Mark's cancer, it hasn't been an easy journey. His diagnosis was shocking news, but her husband's positive outlook has helped her appreciate every day they have together. She continues to enjoy her work as an independent physical therapist, and regularly attends two support groups at Virginia Mason — one for patients and families with pancreas cancer, and the other for patients and families with all types of cancer.

Today, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer has bumped up a bit, to 9 percent, and with ongoing research and improved treatments, it will likely continue to improve.

"Somebody has to be one of the 9 percent to survive this cancer,” Mark said. “Why not me?”