Doctor winning fight to the death against cancer
A doctor who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after giving birth to her first baby is urging sufferers not to give up and to seek alternative opinions when all doors are shut in their faces.
“Always challenge and fight for your chance. If you give up you’ve already lost. The fight is never easy, but if you get to live... what a reward that is,” Karin Busuttil said, suggesting patients and their relatives should research, read and question everything they are told.
Dr Busuttil, who is based in Scotland and spoke to The Times over the phone, was diagnosed with cancer last February. She was just 30 and had given birth to Jethro 13 days earlier.
Since then, she has taken part in trials, tried out a new chemotherapy regime and undergone surgery, with her medical team pushing the boundaries to defeat this “horrid cancer”. She is now on her path to recovery.
Her ordeal has encouraged doctors to apply the newest pancreatic cancer research and look into promising drugs and treatment options.
Dr Busuttil’s fight with pancreatic cancer started during her pregnancy, when back pain was put down to scoliosis at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, Scotland.
Towards the end of her pregnancy she was diagnosed with pregnancy diabetes and became jaundiced, and everything was put down to pregnancy complications. But after giving birth, she felt weaker and lost 20 kilos in a week.
One day, she received an urgent call after taking tests for an outpatient appointment. While on the phone, her husband found Jethro in his crib turning blue and not breathing. Still on the phone, Karin started CPR on her week-old son, and in those few minutes she felt like her life was over.
They were taken to hospital in the same ambulance.
Fortunately, her son was discharged after 24 hours but Dr Busuttil had turned a deep yellow, and while an ultrasound scan showed nothing, an MRI showed a mass in the pancreas.
No one wanted to believe that a person could get pancreatic cancer at her age without the lifestyle of substance abuse that usually precedes it.
She had no risk factors – no obesity, diabetes, smoking, alcohol or drug use. Although her grandfather had died of pancreatic cancer in his 70s, he was a heavy smoker, and her aunt died of pancreatic cancer aged 54.
Dr Busuttil was told she was a one in 10 million case and there were only 15 documented cases worldwide that could compare to hers.
Later she was diagnosed with liver metastases, which is when the cancer spreads to the liver. She had just managed to pick herself up after getting the diagnosis and this was yet another blow. With liver metastases she was now an inoperable case.
Dr Busuttil was devastated: “I would look at my son and husband and cry. I felt like I would never see Jethro grow, and was letting down my husband and son in the biggest way possible,” she said, adding that being a doctor, she knew how dismal her outlook was.
Only 18 per cent of diagnosed patients survive the first year and only three per cent survive five years after diagnosis.
But she still hoped the chemo would shrink the pancreatic cancer and the liver metastases enough to allow for liver resection and surgery on the primary cancer.
The oncologist was cautious because the chemotherapy regimen discussed with Dr Busuttil and her husband Kevin – who had put his work on hold to take care of his family – had never been used in Scotland before.
In total she received nine cycles of chemo, and at times she would lie awake at night and “speak” to her cancer.
“I tell it to get the hell out of my body – there’s no place for it in me. I don’t know if it works, but it helped me hang on and fight.”
In the meantime, scans showed the cancer shrinking by 75 per cent by the end of the chemo – an “unprecedented success”.
Dr Busuttil underwent other tests and procedures, waiting for the “big surgery” known as Whipple’s procedure. Having been given the run-down of this risky surgery, the couple rushed to make their wills; another “harrowing experience”.
“By this point all my emotional reserves had been exhausted and I can tell you that I hit a low point.”
The couple took the opportunity and came to Malta to start setting up an apartment, if not to enjoy it herself, to leave a legacy of her tastes for her husband and child.
But once back in Edinburgh, the surgeon refused to carry out the operation.
“I was shell-shocked. Devastated. My world had ended.”
So they started looking for second opinions in Liverpool, Southampton and Malta, and Glasgow arranged to see her on short notice.
“While preparing arguments to back up the surgery, I’d look at my husband and in my head see him crying over my grave... I’d look at my son and give my husband lists of things to look out for when he’s growing up. Then I’d look at my parents and say sorry for making them worry, in anticipation of putting them through my dying.”
The Glasgow team split the procedure in two operations. The “big surgery” lasted 10 hours and “miraculously” her liver metastases seemed to have disappeared.
“So far I have been declared radiologically cancer free,” she sighed, adding she was now recovering in preparation of reassessments next week.
Dr Busuttil admits that throughout the ordeal, her husband and son helped her keep fighting.
Visits from family and friends in Malta also sustained her, while her mum gave up her job to be with her in difficult times.
“I used to look at them and will myself to get better so I could see my son growing up, go to school, buy his first bike... his first car.
“I would set myself little goals for the week: feed Jethro, wash his hair, cook lunch, hang the laundry, go shopping for food... of course after every chemo it would be back to square one, but I tried to keep active.”