For the entire month of June in 2016, Terry Horstman was in and out of the hospital suffering from excruciating pain that had no clear cause.
“It was incredible abdominal pain,” Horstman said. “I couldn’t stand it. Something was going on.”
He pleaded with doctors to investigate; one doctor suspected he might have pancreatitis.
“Then the biopsy came back. It was pancreatic adenocarcinoma, stage four,” Horstman said. “One person said to me, ‘You’re done,’ but I didn’t believe them. I didn’t feel done. I don’t have an expiration date stamped on my foot.”
Pancreatic cancer usually has a poor prognosis, even when diagnosed early, and it’s rarely detected in the early stages. However, Horstman was not giving up without giving it his all. He got a second opinion. “They told me to get my affairs in order,” he said. “One doctor actually told me I probably had days, not weeks.”
Horstman returned to Midland and sought out Medical Oncologist/Hematologist Jeffrey Letzer, D.O., at MidMichigan Medical Center – Midland.
“I met Dr. Letzer when I was there for the original diagnosis and I could tell he thinks outside the box,” he said. “Of all the doctors I saw, he is the one who said, ‘I have an idea.’
“Dr. Letzer was totally honest with me,” Horstman said. “He told me my chances weren’t good but he had a plan. If it didn’t work, I might have four weeks. If it did work, I might have four years. It was a chance worth taking.”
Horstman was ready to fight but admits he had no idea how hard it would be. “The side effects from the chemo are really bad,” he said. Besides skin reactions and dehydration, one side effect from his particular treatment is mouth sores. “It felt like there were knives cutting into my mouth.” The cancer affected his stomach as well, making drinking and eating sometimes impossible.
Horstman implemented a variety of coping strategies, simple and complex, to deal with it all.
“I took a lot of IVs to keep hydrated and I used popsicles to reduce the swelling in my tongue,” he said. “I had to be careful not to touch the inside of my mouth, but it worked.”
He changed his diet, too. “I started eating high protein and low sugar,” Horstman said. “If you have cancer, sugar is not your friend.”
While the side effects are horrible at times, Horstman said the worst part of the treatment process is the anxiety.
“It’s there from the minute you hear the diagnosis,” he said. “It can get very intense, especially the day before chemo, the day of and the day after.”
He said meditation helps, but when the worry threatens to overwhelm him, he does accept short-term, anti-anxiety medication.
It helps to keep company with positive people, Horstman said. “The more good people you have around you, the better. One negative person can drain you. That’s what I like about Dr. Letzer and his staff – they’re always positive.”
One thing Horstman continues to reject is the use of powerful pain medications, because he doesn’t like the effect they have on his mind and body.
“I’ve been on top of my treatment since day one, and I do not want to mess with anything that would interfere with my decision making,” he said. “I have a good group of friends who help me when I need it and I’m grateful to them. For the most part, though, I’ve managed to remain independent through this whole process and I want to stay that way.”
Horstman started his first round of chemotherapy in July 2016, and began a second round in February 2017. His chemo sessions usually last four to six hours, but can last up to 10 hours if the treatment has to be temporarily stopped to give his body a break.
“This disease, and the drugs, will push you down,” he said. “You have to push back with any ounce of energy you can muster.
“I completely understand why people give up,” Horstman said. “There were times I wanted to quit. Then I got the report that the tumor had shrunk by about half and that gave me hope. It’s still hard, but I’m handling it much better than I did the first time around.”
Horstman is deeply grateful for the efforts of Letzer and his staff.
“I was totally blessed to connect with Dr. Letzer,” he said. “He gave me a second chance. I can’t say enough good things about him and his staff. They are just outstanding.”
The treatments are working and Horstman is feeling better.
“I have my skin tone back, my energy level is coming back and my pain levels are down,” he said. “I can’t say I’m in remission because the tumor is still hanging on to a couple of veins, but it is small now, very small.
“I’ve already beat the odds, so if doing chemo keeps me alive, that’s what I’ll do,” Horstman said. “No one, no matter how healthy, is guaranteed a tomorrow. I’ve learned to take life day by day and get the most out of it that I can.”