MADISON, Wis - A woman who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer near her pancreas is trying to increase awareness of pancreatic cancer.
Maggie Rathert and her husband planned a trip to Europe to celebrate their retirement. The couple decided to cycle through Italy in 2013. When they returned, they had to face another journey -- this time it would be to save her life.
"When we got back I thought, 'My stomach doesn't feel quite right.' I thought maybe it was a result of the travel," she said.
Maggie started to have digestion problems immediately after she got back from her trip. At first she thought it was jet lag. Three weeks later when she went to the doctors, she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, called ampullary cancer, after doctors found a tumor outside her pancreas.
"It hits you in your chest because it feels like somebody has pushed you so hard," Maggie explained.
Doctors caught it in time to do a whipple surgery, an invasive operation that removes part of the pancreas. Her surgery was followed by nine long months of treatment, including chemotherapy. Her treatment is the same course pancreatic cancer patients go through.
It's a hard journey doctors said not all people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer get to make. Of 50,000 people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year, 80 percent of patients die from the disease, according to UW oncologist Dr. Daniel Abbott
"The numbers aren't great, but there are people that do well long-term, and it's important to realize anyone can have the potential to be a long-term survivor," Abbott said.
Pancreatic cancer is extremely aggressive. Many patients are diagnosed too late, which makes the disease even harder to treat. Abbott said research is largely underfunded compared to other forms of cancer research.
"The big picture is we need a lot more dollars for funding, innovative and grounding basic science investigations for pancreatic cancer. There are more people that die from pancreatic cancer than breast cancer in the united states, even though there are five times as many women afflicted with breast cancer," Abbott explained.
Maggie is trying to help others beat those odds by working with the UW's Carbone Cancer Center to help raise funding for more research and to increase awareness. She acts as an advocate for pancreatic cancer research as a member of the Pancreas Task Force. The task force helps put on events like Pedaling for Pancreas, a bike ride that raises funds for research.
"I feel like that is the gift, the gift is I'm here, so if I'm able to give back and support those who are like my brothers and sisters, I feel like we are in the family, so anything I can do to help them," she said.
Maggie is now three-and-a-half years into her five-year goal toward being cancer-free. She hopes improving the research for pancreatic cancer will help others who are diagnosed with the disease.
"For me, it would mean no hope. So that's what it's really all about, doing this work is giving us hope," she said.
Registration for Pedaling for Pancreas ends on May 11th.This year's event will be held on May 13th at Hometown USA Community Park in Verona.
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