By the time Lynne Holcomb experienced one of the few visible symptoms of pancreatic cancer, it had already metastasized – meaning it had spread to other parts of her body.

News | 7 months ago

One Patient's Courage Provides Hope for the Future of Pancreatic Cancer Treatment

“Don’t give up.” That’s Lynne Holcomb’s fervent message to other pancreatic cancer patients. After her stage 4 diagnosis, she was initially told that she had months – maybe a year – to live. But her decision to participate in a clinical trial is allowing her more time and is helping researchers better understand and potentially treat pancreatic cancer with immunotherapy.

By the time Lynne Holcomb experienced one of the few visible symptoms of pancreatic cancer, it had already metastasized – meaning it had spread to other parts of her body. Given that there are no real risk factors identified for pancreatic cancer and very few definitive warning signs of this disease, Lynne’s story is not unique, according to Jimmy Hwang, MD, her medical oncologist at Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute.

But there’s a positive twist to Lynne’s story: It wasn’t over when chemotherapy stopped working. When offered the chance to participate in a clinical trial using an immunotherapy treatment designed to help her immune system attack her cancer cells, she grabbed it and today is cancer free.

Dr. Hwang hopes Lynne’s results lead to a potential advance in treating pancreatic cancer, which is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States.

A Chance Encounter

At an otherwise ordinary sports tailgate, Lynne’s daughter Katie noticed that her mom’s skin and eyes looked yellow. This is called painless jaundice. “It’s probably the most common signal of pancreatic cancer we have,” says Dr. Hwang.  

By sheer luck, some of the friends with Katie were medical students who suggested Lynne get looked at right away. After an emergency room CT scan, she was admitted to another hospital system that very night. Within days, Lynne was told the devastating news that it was stage 4 pancreatic cancer and inoperable. 

Discharged with little hope, a friend suggested Lynne turn to Levine Cancer Institute team, where she met Dr. Hwang. She says he gave her some much-needed encouragement: “We’re going to do everything we can to allow you as much time as possible.”

A Lifeline Close to Home

Lynne’s cancer initially responded to the chemotherapy prescribed by Dr. Hwang. “She tolerated it better than most,” he says, which didn’t surprise him. As a personal trainer for 25 years at the YMCA, she was the picture of health other than her cancer.

Lynne’s cancer eventually stopped responding to chemotherapy. Fortunately, just prior to that, Dr. Hwang learned that LCI was one of a few sites nationwide and the only one in our region to be approved to participate in a phase I clinical trial studying immunotherapy to treat pancreatic cancer patients.

As one of the best in the nation for cancer care as recognized by U.S. News & World Report, LCI has a successful track record of studying experimental treatments, according to Dr. Hwang. From a patient’s perspective, Lynne felt fortunate not to have to travel to have access to this trial. “To have that research right here at home is amazing,” she says.

On top of that, she appreciated the integrative oncology offered at LCI, which made her feel like she had a small sense of control over her treatment and healing. The Department of Supportive Oncology offers clinics and programs to support patients, their families and caregivers throughout the cancer journey. The team’s goal is to decrease symptoms, improve health, facilitate recovery, and nurture well-being, and in Lynne’s case, that is exactly what happened.

Life Goes On

Immunotherapy’s goal is to use the body’s immune system to attack cancer with fewer side effects and longer-lasting results than chemotherapy, and it did that in Lynne’s case. Within three months, her tumor shrank by 20%. This progress continued throughout her treatment and even afterward. She’s had no sign of cancer for more than two years.

Researchers are still trying to determine why it worked in Lynne’s case, but her results make Dr. Hwang hopeful that they’re on the right track. “It’s a dangerous disease that often kills people relatively quickly, making it difficult to study,” he says. When patients like Lynne are willing to participate in clinical trials, it’s incredibly helpful.

Looking back, Lynne says it was the people around her who gave her the courage, hope and faith to fight. There was her rock – her husband Rick – along with her family, friends, fellow church members and PanCAN PurpleStride Holcomb’s Heroes team. And of course, her favorite football team, the Clemson Tigers, won two National Championships “for her.”

By the time Lynne Holcomb experienced one of the few visible symptoms of pancreatic cancer, it had already metastasized – meaning it had spread to other parts of her body.

She also says she had a team of cheerleaders in Dr. Hwang, the research team and especially her nurse navigator Joanna Bellefeuille.  

When she celebrates her 60th birthday this month with Rick, son Andy, Katie and son-in-law Todd by her side, Lynne will do what she does every day – say thank you for another day.

Learn more about pancreatic cancer care at Levine Cancer Institute.