First-in-Colorado treatment for pancreatic cancer puts Aspen instructor back on the slopes

Linda Harlan, Aspen ski instructor, pancreatic cancer survivor

“A month ago I was dying, and now here I am,” says Linda Harlan, a stunning, 64-year-old ski instructor from Aspen.

Just a short year ago, her unlikely recovery would have been impossible.

“I’ve taught skiing forever and suddenly I started coming home totally exhausted. I looked in the mirror one day and I was yellow,” Harlan says.

Eventually she was was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, which had burst from her pancreas to colonize other nearby tissues including the portal vein, which brings blood and vital nutrients to the liver.

“There was a 60-plus percent narrowing of the portal vein and her tumor had spread 270 degrees around it,” says her surgeon, Csaba Gajdos, MD, investigator at the University of Colorado Cancer Center and surgical oncologist and the University of Colorado Hospital. “Someone like this should not be on the operating table,” Gajdos says.

So instead, following the recommendations of Wells Messersmith, MD, and Colin Weekes, MD, PhD, both medical oncologists at the CU Cancer Center, Harlan started with a 3-month course of chemotherapy under the direction of Alexander Urquhart, MD, a medical oncologist at Shaw Cancer Center in Aspen. The longshot hope was to knock Harlan’s cancer down to an operable level – if her treatment team could squeeze the cancer back into the box of Harlan’s pancreas, they could cut it out.

But instead of the standard chemotherapy regiment of gemcitabine, her treatment team added a new drug combination called Folfirinox, whose promising results in stage 4 pancreatic cancer had recently been reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It was the first time this cutting-edge drug combination had been used preoperatively in Colorado.

“I’ve worked too damn hard to die now,” says Harlan. “Besides I just bought new boots and skis. I’m not ready to die.”

Three months later, her cancer had shrunk significantly.

“Before chemo she was unresectable [inoperable] and this new type of chemotherapy converted her to a resectable stage. We have CT scans showing her portal vein invasion was essentially gone – even an untrained pair of eyes can see it on imaging,” Gajdos says.

Following the miraculous effects of this chemotherapy, Drs. Gajdos and the surgery team were able to perform a “Whipple” operation with portal vein resection – the standard surgery for Harlan’s now-treatable condition. The operation was followed by an uneventful recovery, which will be followed by what everyone involved hopes is a final course of chemotherapy to lessen the chance of relapse.

“Last year a good friend of mine got hit on the slopes and broke her pelvis in eight places,” Harlan says. “So we’ve been walking together. Now our goal is to get into the First Tracks program – get on the lifts early.”

Due to first-in-Colorado treatment at the CU Cancer Center and its partners, this winter while you’re shivering in line at 8:30am while waiting for the Aspen lifts to open at 9:00am, Linda Harlan should already be on the slopes, cutting the first tracks of what seems a new lease on life.

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About the author: Garth Sundem

In addition to writing for the University of Colorado Cancer Center, Garth is the author of the books The Geeks' Guide to World Domination, Brain Candy, and Geek Logik. Contact him at garth.sundem [at] ucdenver.edu.

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