An Update From the Home Front

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Even though we are in a stretch between races, there are still a few things I could discuss in the IndyCar world. IMS has announced that around 10,000 fans will be allowed to attend the Harvest Grand Prix, while Sébastien Bourdais has been announced full-time in AJ Foyt’s famous No. 14 for 2021.

But since we are in between races, I thought I would take this time to answer comments, e-mails and tweets regarding Susan’s progress in her battle with pancreatic cancer.

I carefully chose the word “progress”, because that is what we’ve seen. We are not naïve to how serious this particular type of cancer is. My father died of pancreatic cancer in 1994 and lasted less than seven months after diagnosis, so I know how deadly it can be.

When we learned of Susan’s diagnosis on July 7th, we prepared ourselves for the worst. Why wouldn’t we? I had a first-hand recollection of what my father went through, and Susan immediately googled pancreatic cancer and read the grim prognosis that popped up first. The future looked bleak.

When we had our initial visit with her oncologist, she told us nothing to improve our outlook. She explained that Susan’s tumor was inoperable because it had grown so much, that it was intertwined among the blood vessels in her pancreas. She scheduled Susan to insert a port into her chest and to do an MRI and a CT scan all on July 20; then she started chemo on the very next day. Her doctor told us that the goal was to shrink the tumor enough so that it might be surgically removed after six months of chemo (twelve rounds every two weeks). But she also added that this was only successful in about 20% of all cases and there was a good chance the cancer could spread over the next six months. Things did not sound good.

Shortly afterwards, we learned of the surgeon at the Mayo Clinic that was having remarkable success performing surgery on “inoperable” pancreatic tumors like hers. We shipped all of her medical records to them in Rochester, MN. After reviewing her case, they determined that she was deemed a suitable candidate for this type of innovative and aggressive surgery; mainly because her cancer had not appeared to spread based on the scans and records we provided. They scheduled us to go to the Mayo Clinic this coming week, the week of Sep 27.

They also asked that she undergo a PET scan, which is apparently the current gold standard to determine if the cancer has spread. After her local oncology group took their time to schedule the PET scan, and then insurance denying it for about ten days before finally allowing it to be re-scheduled – she finally had her PET scan done on Aug 28 and we sent the disk to Mayo before it had even been read.

We got good news on the Thursday heading into the Labor Day weekend – the PET scan showed no evidence whatsoever that the cancer had spread. It was still confined to the pancreas. The very next day, we got frustrating news from the Mayo Clinic. Since the scan took so long to be done, they needed about two months between the original scan and the one they would do when we arrived at Mayo, in order to get a comparison to determine her progress. They re-scheduled our trip to Minnesota for a month later. We now go the week of Oct 25.

So that was something of a setback or maybe just more of a disappointment.

Susan underwent another CT scan on Sep 10. Apparently, a PET scan is superior in detecting cancer activity, but a CT scan is much more accurate for determining the actual size of the tumor. To go along with the good news that her cancer has not spread beyond the pancreas, we got the added good news that after four rounds of chemo, her tumor had shrunk by more than 50% since the scan she had done in July. Her oncologist was thrilled and we were ecstatic. She was obviously responding very well to the chemo.

Once we learned about this surgeon (Dr. Mark Truty) at the Mayo Clinic and how he has actually cured people to the extent that they were still cancer-free more than seven years after surgery, we felt like there was hope. When they agreed to treat her, the entire mindset in our household changed. Susan now had good reason to put up with all of the nasty side-effects that each three-day round of chemo brought every other week.

After six hours of pumping all kinds of nasty things into the port in her chest every other Tuesday, she is sent home wearing a pump for another two days. By the time she gets it removed on Thursday afternoon, she is wiped out. It also doesn’t help that the effects are cumulative, meaning each round is worse than the one before. She just finished Round Five this past Thursday and she was still exhausted throughout the weekend. She finally showed some sign of energy by Sunday morning.

Susan has had every major side-effect they warned her about at the beginning – massive fatigue, severe diarrhea and hair loss. Fortunately, nausea and vomiting is not one of the side-effects; and she hasn’t barfed a single time. But hair loss showed up after Round Two and about the only area that still has much hair to speak of, is the front where her bangs are. She bought a wig that actually looks good, but she rarely wears it. I’m used to looking at the way it looks and never really think about it – but I know she does.

Susan’s attitude, however, is what is going to get her through this. Her strength and courage have been amazing. She rarely sits around to wallow in self-pity. She simply knows what she has to do. She realizes what’s in front of her and deals with it, because she knows that’s the only way to make it through this ordeal. She has maintained her rich and sarcastic sense of humor and doesn’t mind making fun of herself and her current appearance. If it’s possible to have fun with cancer, Susan is doing it.

T-shirt

She has a photo taken on the way to each chemo session, holding up the appropriate amount of fingers to show which round she is headed to. You can almost sense the fear and uncertainty in her face on her way to Round One, and the confident good spirit she shows on her way to Round Five this past Tuesday. That’s what having hope does for you.

Round One

Round Five

But make no mistake, the chemo is taking its toll on her body. Thank goodness it’s working, because that helps her to endure the fatigue and all of the other nasty side-effects – which also includes a strange form of neuropathy. When she is done with her Tuesday sessions, all of her extremities are completely numb, including her tongue which makes for some interesting speech patterns. The worst part of the neuropathy is when she touches anything cold. She can’t even get anything out of the refrigerator without sending painful electrical shocks through her body. The same thing happens when she drinks anything cold, so all drinks have to be room temperature (yuck!). This was another side-effect they told us about and not to worry about it, but I can only imagine how painful and miserable that is.

So that’s what’s going on here. We are patiently awaiting our trip to the Mayo Clinic at the end of October. Between now and then, Susan will have two more rounds of chemo. During our four-day visit, she will be scanned, poked, prodded and even have a laparoscopic camera inserted into her belly. From that, her doctor will actually build a model with a 3-D printer to replicate exactly what he will be getting into. I imagine the surgery will be scheduled for sometime in November. It will be a grueling 14-hour surgery and she will have to be hospitalized a full two weeks to recover, before returning home to Nashville. It is our hope that the IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, presumably next April, will be Susan’s “coming out party”.

It has been a stressful two and a half months, which also saw the sudden death of my mother about three weeks after Susan’s diagnosis. But we also see a light at the end of the tunnel that we did not see earlier. We have hope, and hope is a good thing. We are still very much aware that one setback could make things go terribly wrong, so we are cautiously optimistic. She still has a difficult road ahead, but right now things are going about as well as we could hope for.

Please keep both of us – Susan, especially – in your prayers. The level of care, concern and support we have received from the IndyCar community is still a bit overwhelming. That’s why I wrote this post, because so many people have been asking how she is doing. That concern has helped keep us going this summer. We will need it even more this fall.

I will be back here on Wednesday to discuss the IndyCar world. Thanks for indulging me today.

George Phillips

21 Responses to “An Update From the Home Front”

  1. Leslie Bissell Says:

    Thank you for the update George. Continuing prayers for you and Susan. Hope is a wonderful thing!

  2. Keep fighting Susan, we’re all pulling for you and can’t wait to see you back at the track! 💪

  3. Best wishes to the both of you from over here…

  4. Continued prayers, hope and blessings to both of you!! 🙏👍

  5. Thanks for the update, George. Her attitude will go along way toward healing. I’m glad you are seeing progress. Thinking of both of you daily. I know you have to be nearly as exhausted as she is.

  6. A positive attitude will always work wonders. Many thoughts and much prayer for you.

    … and the shirt is wonderful!

  7. Denise Weltzin Says:

    Continued prayers for both of you. I know all the positivity is going to work miracles for Susan!

  8. Rick Johnson Says:

    I’m praying for you both.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    Thank you for the update, George, I am glad to hear such positive and hopeful news. Keep fighting, Susan!

    Both of you are continually in my prayers.

  10. Good to hear! You guys are in our thoughts!

  11. Thank you for this update! I’m so glad to hear that you will be going to the Mayo Clinic for the surgery, and will keep you both in my prayers, as always!

  12. Faith, hope, and love. Stay strong!!! Thanks for sharing this update with us.

  13. Good God, George… your lives are reading like a passage out of the book of Job. Please hang in there! And yes, celebrate the good news! Overall, despite the date change, things are looking up! And the Mayo Clinic centers are amazing, it’s great that they’re taking Susan in.

    You’re right, things can change fast, but so far the indicators are pointing up. That’s something for all of us to celebrate.

    Hang tough. I saw my own mom go through chemo and radio too, and while it was no picnic, she managed it. Cancer-free for 23 years now. It can be done.

    Good luck to you both. And luck to the Mayo staff as well; they probably get a lot of motivation out of beating that 20% figure!

  14. So happy to hear the news has been good and the progress has continued. I’ve followed along with Susan and kept up on her road to recovery, which is hiw I choose to view the battle. Keep fighting Susan, George keep being a pillar for her to lean on when needed. I look forward to many more positive news updates.

  15. Praying for you both!

  16. It’s been a crummy year for your family George, hopes for better things ahead! Susan is a ray of sunshine in the face of this battle, a true treasure!

  17. I’m praying for Susan. I love the shirt. I sent a copy of it to my daughter who is getting chemo and radiation treatments for her colon cancer.

  18. So good to hear about Susan’s progress and her continued internal strength in this fight. I too love the shirt. I think about you two every day, hoping for continued positive progress. Bless you both.

  19. It’s great to hear that things are going in a positive direction. I’ve been thinking about both of you, keeping my fingers crossed for good news. Take care, and best of luck with all that’s coming at Mayo.

  20. Jane Hamilton Says:

    Glad to hear about her progress. Continued prayers for you both, and I look forward to hearing anout a successful surgery down the road.

  21. Thank you for the update George. Please stay strong and positive Susan. It is that strength that both you and all your medical staff need to make it through these stressful and trying times. Your smile and attitude are an inspiration to so many others that gave difficult times. God Bless!

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