Pancreatic cancer survivor gets new lease on life for a second time

November 16, 2021
Bob Hessler stands outside in a garden
Bob Hessler sought treatment for pancreatic cancer at Hollings after feeling unhappy with his initial care in Massachusetts. Photo by Josh Birch

Most people feel lucky to get one new lease on life — Bob Hessler, 74, has had two. The first came 15 years ago after he realized that he was an alcoholic, and he quit drinking heavily. The second came earlier this year when his treatment for pancreatic cancer at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center wrapped up.

“My mentality was I beat my addiction to alcohol, why couldn’t I beat cancer, too?” Hessler asked. “In a way, I’m renewed twice. I feel really fortunate and really lucky.”

A Delaware native, Hessler now splits his time between homes on Johns Island and Cape Cod. It was upon returning to Cape Cod in 2020 that Hessler noticed something wasn’t right. “I had always had acid reflux, but it got worse. It was the worst acid reflux I had ever had. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the gut with a knife.”

Not one to chance it, Hessler went to his primary care physician in Massachusetts who ordered a CT scan for further evaluation. It was December 2020 before he got the confirmed diagnosis. Hessler had stage 1 pancreatic cancer.

November is National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and this year, it means more to Hessler than before — it’s his first as a survivor. He returns to Hollings this November to share his cancer journey during the official launch of the South Carolina affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN).

“I did my research when I got the diagnosis. I knew pancreatic cancer is tough. It really came down to my self will. The cancer was either going to kill me, or I was going to kill it. I made the determination to kill it.”
— Bob Hessler

“I did my research when I got the diagnosis. I knew pancreatic cancer is tough,” he said. “It really came down to my self will. The cancer was either going to kill me, or I was going to kill it. I made the determination to kill it.”

Hessler underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy but was unhappy with the care he received in Massachusetts. The part-time resident of Johns Island was then told by a friend to make an appointment at Hollings. Early in 2021, Hessler walked through the doors of Hollings to meet with David Mahvi, M.D., a Hollings surgical oncologist.

“The reception we got at Hollings was incredible. We are from the North, and they treated us like family they had known their entire lives,” Hessler said.

Hessler said Mahvi put all of their fears to rest and explained step by step the options they had and what to expect. Mahvi said that when it comes to patient care, providing options is key. “I think everyone should have autonomy with their care,” Mahvi said. “Pancreatic cancer isn’t straightforward and tends to circumvent available treatments. I think it is important to let patients make decisions and help to guide them from a medical aspect to make the best decisions possible.”

Dr. David Mahvi 
Dr. David Mahvi

The best decision following Hessler’s chemotherapy treatment was to perform a pancreaticoduodenectomy, also known as a Whipple procedure, which he underwent in June 2021 at MUSC. Mahvi, an expert in pancreatic cancer who has done the Whipple procedure on many patients, said it is important to go to large academic medical centers with surgeons who are familiar with this tricky procedure to reduce the risk of complications and improve overall outcomes.

“To remove a pancreatic cancer, you have to take out the cancer itself but also the normal tissue around the cancer to reduce the chance of a local recurrence,” Mahvi said. “During a Whipple procedure, you remove parts of the pancreas, the GI tract that loops around the pancreas, the gallbladder and the bile duct. Once that is done, you have to reconstruct the area and connect the pancreas and the bile duct to the GI tract.”

Mahvi said pancreatic cancer presents challenges — it tends to spready quickly, and there isn’t an effective screening procedure in place to catch it. He said that is why he stresses the importance of genetics and the patient knowing whether he or she has an elevated risk for pancreatic cancer.

“Genetics can put someone at a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer, which is why resources offered at Hollings, like genetic testing, are so important,” he said. “It’s one of many ways Hollings goes beyond treating cancer from a medical standpoint. We offer support systems through our nurse navigators, dieticians and social workers. We also have incredible researchers who are looking into more effective ways to treat pancreatic cancer.”

Hessler is grateful for the care he received at Hollings and continues to share his story with others to raise awareness and give back. “MUSC Hollings Cancer Center saved my life. I think it is an extraordinary facility. I get to do what I love to do with the people I love the most, and for that, I’m very thankful.”