- Lindsay Gavin, 40, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer after having heart palpitations.
- Like many patients, she only noticed symptoms during the later stages of pancreatic cancer.
- Leaning on her network of friends and family has helped her find all possible treatment options.
When Lindsay Gavin ended up in the emergency room on Christmas Eve 2022, the 40-year-old mom of two wasn’t sure what to make of her heart palpitations. She assumed she had worked out too hard at Orangetheory the day before. Then, as she waited at the hospital, she started getting abdominal cramping and a fever, she told Insider.
After imaging was done, she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which had spread to her liver. It was a difficult diagnosis: About 5-10% of pancreatic cancer patients survive past five years after diagnosis, and those with stage 4 pancreatic cancer have a five-year survival rate of 1%.
Gavin is younger than most pancreatic cancer patients, who are diagnosed when they are over the age of 55. When she got her diagnosis, she told Insider that she felt “total shock” and immediately thought of her family. “Obviously, all I think about was my two little girls and am I gonna be around for them?” she said. “But they’re also my glimmer of hope, so I had to stay strong and do what I had to do.”
She said her daughters, ages seven and four, are the reason she immediately asked for an antidepressant. Then, with the help of her huge network, she started to seek treatment for one of the deadliest cancers, which causes roughly 50,000 US deaths per year.
Like many, her pancreatic cancer symptoms appeared in later stages
What makes pancreatic so hard to diagnose is that most people don’t experience any symptoms until stage four, the most advanced stage of the disease.
Gavin, who worked as a nurse prior to starting treatment, had a work-related shoulder injury a month before her diagnosis. She was taking Tylenol and Motrin “around the clock,” which she suspected masked her fevers. When diagnosed with cancer, she had masses in her pancreas and liver, severe diverticulitis (bulging pouches in her digestive tract), and an abscess in her colon that was septic.
Her family helps her find every possible treatment option
Doctors told Gavin that the best treatment option was chemotherapy, but her family was determined to look for any possible treatments, including cutting-edge biotechnology.
Gavin enlisted the help of her sister and retired mom, who immediately dove into resources provided by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
She’s had nine rounds of chemotherapy treatments at Northwestern Memorial Hospital so far, which she said were “very successful” after eight weeks and shrunk all her tumors at first, though some have regrown.
Her family and friends keep her up to date on new advancements in pancreatic cancer treatment, such as the recent development of an mRNA vaccine that prevented the cancer from returning in 50% of patients who received the jab.
Gavin still can’t bring herself to read too much about pancreatic cancer, which makes her mother and sister’s research helpful. “They’re bulldogs when it comes to that,” she said.
She leans on her huge network for emotional support
Gavin described the support she’s received as “unreal” — many of her friends and colleagues have shown up for chemo treatments with posters to cheer her on and snacks for the nurses.
“They bring gifts and cards — not a typical card of like, ‘I’m so sorry you’re going through this,'” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I hate my husband. Listen to what he did to me the other night.'” Gavin reads them as she sits through her treatments.
Her network has also branched out since her diagnosis — one of Gavin’s best friends introduced her to a 39-year-old woman in Atlanta who also has late-stage pancreatic cancer.
“We talk now almost every day, which is awesome,” Gavin said. “She has a great sense of humor. Humor’s really helped a lot within this whole diagnosis for me.”
To help fundraise for pancreatic cancer research, Gavin walked the Purple Stride in Chicago with over 120 people on her team — and took first place. Her sister also organized a team with her family and friends in Detroit, where Gavin was born and raised. “It was kind of cool to have two top fundraising teams in two different states, for the same goal,” Gavin said.
While the future is unknown, Gavin is hopeful: She has a rare gene mutation that “is wonderful,” because her doctors said she can try targeted therapy, which involves getting infusions of medications that target specific proteins on the cancer cells that may help them stop growing, or even destroy the cancerous cells. While the medications, Herceptin and Perjeta, haven’t been FDA-approved to treat pancreatic cancer, they’ve been used to treat breast and stomach cancer.
In the meantime, she said she’s formed a new relationship with God and tries to take everything one day at a time. “There’s a lot more prayer in my life at the moment and really just losing myself in my friends and my family,” she said. “I’m really just focusing on the little wins.”