Young Father Completes Treatment for Rare Cancer at Atrium Health Union West

Your Health | 4 months ago

Young Father Completes Treatment for Rare Cancer at Atrium Health Union West

Russ James, 44, shares his ampullary cancer treatment journey at Levine Cancer Institute Union West.

Earlier this year, Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute (LCI) opened a new location—LCI Union West—housed on the campus of Atrium Health Union West, a new hospital in Matthews, North Carolina. Russ James, 44, a resident of Indian Trail, was the first person at LCI Union West to ring the bell to celebrate completing chemotherapy in April 2022. 

Russ first noticed something wasn’t right during a family beach vacation in July 2021. Usually very active and healthy, he didn’t feel like himself. 

“I wasn’t feeling very good all of a sudden,” he says. “I did two COVID-19 tests and both came back negative. The [urgent care] physician prescribed me antibiotics, and by the time we were headed home from vacation, I was feeling like myself again.” 

But soon after returning home, Russ started feeling itchiness in his hands, ankles and feet. 

“I thought, ‘This can’t be normal,’” he says. “I hadn’t had my yearly checkup, so my wife encouraged me to make an appointment.”

Russ’ primary care provider (PCP) ran several blood tests, and some of the tests indicated that his liver enzymes were significantly above the normal range. After follow-up testing showed similar above-average levels, Russ underwent a CT scan.

“It came back with some irregularities as it related to having dilated bile ducts, but everything else looked OK,” he says. 

Learning he had ampullary cancer

His PCP referred him to a gastroenterologist for additional testing. Eventually, Russ got an MRI, followed by an endoscopy. 

“That’s when they found a mass in the ampulla of Vater in my gastrointestinal area,” he says. “At the time, they put in a stent to open up my bile ducts, which allowed things to normalize.”

During the endoscopy, the physician also took a biopsy. Russ was diagnosed with ampullary cancer, a rare form of cancer that affects the area where the pancreatic duct and bile duct empty into the small intestine. At that point, his medical team referred him to Dr. Dionisios (Dennis) Vrochides, a hepatopancreatobiliary surgeon at LCI. 

“Dr. Vrochides and his staff were amazing, informative and patient during my consultation,” says Russ. “Dr. Vrochides thought I was a good candidate for the Whipple procedure, since standardized treatment pathways dictated that ampullary cancer should be treated the same way as pancreatic malignancy.”

The Whipple procedure and post-surgery recovery 

Russ decided to move forward with the Whipple procedure, and surgery was scheduled for Dec. 13, 2021. Vrochides and his team performed the surgery robotically rather than a traditional open Whipple procedure. Vrochides removed about 40% of Russ’ pancreas. 

Russ came through surgery with no issues and went home from the hospital five days later. 

“I had a great support system around me,” he says. “My wife Krista was there for me while still fulfilling her role as a teacher with Union County Public Schools. My mother and father live in Myrtle Beach and were able to stay with us to help while I recovered. My in-laws live in the Charlotte area and also provided support for me and our family.” 

Starting chemotherapy 

At the end of January 2022, Russ met with Dr. Kristopher Hansen, DO, a medical oncologist at LCI. Upon review of his surgical findings, Hansen recommended postoperative chemotherapy to reduce his risk of recurrence. 

Russ also met with Dr. Vipul Thakkar, a radiation oncologist at LCI, as part of the multidisciplinary care team. After reviewing the details and speaking directly with Drs. Vrochides and Hansen, Thakkar determined that radiation therapy would not be needed in Russ’s case.  

Russ began chemotherapy in February at LCI Union West.

“Dr. Hansen and his team were phenomenal,” he says. “Everyone at LCI—from the people who work at the front desk to the people who check you in for appointments to the medical team—was so compassionate.”

Russ says chemotherapy went relatively smoothly, though it started to take its toll after about three months. 

“After completion of my chemotherapy and talking with Dr. Hansen and Dr. Vrochides, they decided I was finished with my treatment,” he says. 

Russ was the first patient at LCI Union West to ring the bell to signify completing chemotherapy. His last infusion was on April 28.  

“The whole time, I felt like I was in such good hands,” says Russ. “My medical team knew what the plan was and it went off without a hitch.” 

Getting back to life as normal 

These days, Russ says life is “back to normal” and he’s consistently regaining his strength. 

“I coach my 13-year-old son’s football and baseball teams and my 9-year-old son’s baseball team,” he says. “In large part, our lives are every bit as normal as they were before surgery.”

Russ still meets with Hansen for blood work and scans every three months. His June CT scan and MRI showed no evidence of recurrence. 

Encouragement for others with a cancer diagnosis 

“My encouragement for others with a cancer diagnosis is to never give up,” says Russ. “It’s human nature to go on the internet and read the statistics, but every situation is unique and there are so many medical advancements these days.”

He adds, “Although I have my days, I keep leaning on the amazing care and communication I received at LCI. The care, consideration and compassion they showed me are second to none. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend LCI.” 

Learn more about cancer treatment at Levine Cancer Institute