Karyn Wolschleger lives for adventure.
As she jets to Europe, the Caribbean, Iceland and New Zealand, she makes life at 64 look good.
Not to say there isn’t plenty of time at home, too—much of it spent with her grandkids. But she always has a new trip on the horizon as soon as the last one is in her rear-view mirror.
It’s more than wanderlust propelling Karyn.
She has a profound sense of gratitude for all the world offers—especially since she received a second chance at life 10 years ago.
At 54, Karyn began a grueling, unplanned journey—she faced pancreatic cancer.
Defeating it required a long course of treatments at Corewell Health’s Spectrum Health Cancer Center, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.
And for Karyn, it also required immense determination, fortitude, a wide network of support and a medical team she could trust.
And hope. She clung to the hope that she would outlast the cancer and find more days to treasure with her loved ones.
“Now that I look back, I realize I have been given a whole new lease on life,” Karyn said. “I am not going to waste a single minute of it.”
Seeing Karyn embrace life brings joy to her Corewell Health surgical oncologist, Mathew Chung, MD.
“That is awesome,” he said. “That is why we do what we do—to have an outcome like this.”
As a 10-year survivor, Karyn shares a message of hope for others facing pancreatic cancer.
“It is not a death sentence,” she said. “You can get through it.”
A tumor detected
A decade ago, in her mid-50s, Karyn felt on the cusp of new freedoms and milestones.
The youngest of her four children, her twin sons, were in college.
She looked forward to having more time for travel and relaxation with her husband. She hoped one day for grandchildren.
And then a CT scan revealed a golf ball-sized tumor on her pancreas.
“That was a dark moment,” she said. “That was hard, really hard.”
She did not know much about pancreatic cancer, but what she knew was not good.
“It doesn’t have the best reputation,” she said.
Her husband, Kevin Wolschleger, MD, a Corewell Health cardiologist, cautioned her to avoid internet searches on the topic.
The articles often are based on studies and patients from past years. They don’t necessarily reflect current medical knowledge or the treatments she would receive.
Karyn had a friend whose uncle lived 20 years after his diagnosis. That gave her reason to hope she could be a survivor, too.
Still, she faced a battle.
Even today, the 10-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is “in the 10% range,” Dr. Chung said.
A new treatment
One factor in Karyn’s survival was an approach to treatment that was considered cutting-edge a decade ago. Before undergoing surgery, she went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments to shrink the tumor.
“Some of the bigger (cancer treatment programs) were just beginning to do it,” Dr. Chung said. “That has become more of the norm now.”
Dr. Chung performed the surgery on Feb. 26, 2013. Along with the tumor, he removed Karyn’s pancreas, spleen, gallbladder, part of her bile duct, part of her stomach and the first section of her small intestine.
Without her pancreas, she immediately developed Type 1 diabetes and learned to adapt to insulin shots and blood sugar checks. But that is not what stands out most for Karyn.
“That is when I say I was cancer-free,” she said. “That is what I call my anniversary date.”
Through the treatments and recovery from surgery, Karyn relied on her husband, kids and friends.
“It’s important that you have a support system,” she said. “You need somebody to be here, someone you can lean on.”
As she recovered, Karyn continued to check in with her doctors. At first, she underwent a CT scan every three months. Gradually, the scans became further and further apart.
About five years ago, the scan detected cancer in her lung—it had spread from her pancreatic cancer.
She underwent a CyberKnife treatment, which uses radiation to target and destroy the cancer.
“I still do a CT scan every two to three years,” Karyn said. “Sometimes I have to put it in the back of my mind and say I’m going to live my life and not worry about it.”
Making family memories
The past 10 years have been filled with moments that make Karyn grateful for her survival.
She has helped care for her parents, who live nearby.
She has witnessed her twin sons graduate from college and launch careers.
Two of her children have gotten married.
And she has welcomed four grandchildren.
“They are so precious, and they mean so much,” she said. “When I was diagnosed, I never thought I would get to see grandchildren.”
The family celebrated her 10th anniversary as a survivor with a trip to St. Maarten this winter.
“We are making all those family memories,” she said.
Over the years, friends have asked her to speak with others who face pancreatic cancer. And she has been glad to share her experience.
“With pancreatic cancer, there is hope,” she said. “You can get past it. I think it’s important for people to understand that.
“Just trust the doctors. And if you have questions, don’t be afraid to ask.”