As a working mother of twins under the age of two, Corinn Sparks thought her chronic heartburn was related to a busy lifestyle, too much coffee and stress. When it persisted, she began taking medication hoping it would provide relief.
“The medication helped some, but not enough,” says Sparks, an elementary school librarian who like many, took to the internet and began Googling her symptoms. “Pancreatic cancer kept popping up, but at my age, 33, I couldn’t imagine that it could be true.”
To Sparks’ credit, she didn’t ignore her symptoms. A CAT scan and a biopsy revealed a ten centimeter cancerous mass on her pancreas. Called a pancreatic solid pseudopapillary tumor, it usually affects young women but is so rare that it makes up only one percent of all pancreatic tumors. The mass was extremely large, the size of a grapefruit. It was pressing on Sparks’ stomach, prompting the heartburn.
“Heartburn is actually not a typical symptom for this particular diagnosis, as in many instances there are no symptoms at all,” says Dr. Kenneth Chi, Sparks’ gastroenterologist at the Center for Digestive Health at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “Corinn is fortunate that she kept searching for answers, since her symptoms were really common and could have been easily overlooked.”
Removing the tumor required a complex surgical procedure called a Whipple. That’s because it was located in the head of the pancreas, involving other organs.
Dr. Fabio Sbrana, a surgeon who specializes in hepatobiliary-pancreatic surgery and minimally-invasive robotic surgery at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, performed the seven-hour surgery robotically.
Through a small incision, Dr. Sbrana removed the tumor, as well as the head of the pancreas, duodenum, gastric antrum, common bile duct and gallbladder. Once the tumor was gone, Dr. Sbrana completed the complicated task of reconnecting the pancreas, common bile duct and stomach to the small bowel.
“The pancreas has a double function,” says Dr. Sbrana. “We wanted to be sure that it was functioning again properly, regulating her metabolism and providing enzymes that are critical to the digestive process. We were successful, and she should have no additional problems moving forward. ”
“I feel great,” says Sparks, admitting that the experience has really changed her perspective. “I don’t hold on to things like I used to. I enjoy every moment. It’s given me the chance to make more out of life and that’s just what I am doing.”