In February 2016, Tara Wilkes left her job as a decorator and furniture sales associate, locked the door of she and her husband's second home on Lake Waccamaw and moved back inland to the family home in Rockingham, North Carolina, for good.
The then-54-year-old was tired all the time. She could no longer wear her rings because her fingers were always swollen and one of her shoulders hurt. She attributed this to walking a 40,000-square-foot showroom, daily, and she figured she’d pulled her rotater cuff carrying heavy fabrics up and down the stairs of her clients’ coastal homes. But her local physician couldn't find anything wrong with her shoulder.
Not long after, while out shopping in Pinehurst, NC, and her shoulder still ailing, she turned jaundiced — her pale skin was suddenly noticeably yellow. She went straight to the ED. An astute doctor had connected her shoulder pain to a possible gallbladder problem and ordered an endoscopy — a nonsurgical procedure used to examine the digestive tract. Her gallbladder as it turned out, was indeed damaged. It was due to the pancreatic tumor nearby pressing against it.
Tara was referred to Duke surgeon Sabino Zani Jr., MD, and Duke Cancer Institute oncologist Niharika Mettu, MD, PhD. She underwent five-and-a-half weeks of radiation and chemotherapy (in pill form), and in June that year underwent Whipple surgery (a pancreaticoduodenectomy) — a complex procedure during which the head of the pancreas is removed along with a portion of the bile duct, gallbladder, and the first portion of the small intestine. After 13 once-a-week IV chemotherapy treatments after surgery, Tara was told, just in time for Christmas 2016, that there was no evidence of disease.
“One of the things that Dr. Mettu said to me, when I was cleared, was that it was time to start living my life again,” recalled Tara. The young grandmother, who turned 55 that October, went out and did that.
She spent the next year, 2017, doing what she loved, including going to the beach, taking walks, playing with her grandchildren, visiting elderly shut-ins, restoring furniture, and painting. She painted a giant sunflower onto a barn door on her property, and hand-painted pillows and oven mitts as Christmas gifts for family and friends that have taken care of her and prayed with her through her cancer “ordeal.” She and her devoted husband and designated caregiver Neal hosted a Christmas party at their house that year.
Better than Average
That was the abridged version of Tara Wilkes' cancer story, as written for the Duke Cancer Institute blog in January 2018, the genesis of which was a message from Neal Wilkes.
“Tara would love to talk and has a story to share,” wrote Neal in an email. “Tara has a deep faith in God, many prayers, and a great team of doctors. God led us to Duke and this was and is the key to her success.”
Following the publication of the article, the couple sent this message:
“Hopefully this will inspire others with this dreadful cancer.”
Dr. Mettu couldn't be drawn on Tara's prognosis at the time, except to say that she and the other patient (featured in that same article) "had done well, perhaps better than average.”
“I am always inspired by the optimism of my patients with pancreatic cancer; so many of my patients find the ability to make the best of this situation and are very much invested in helping to further our treatments for this disease by participating in research that will move the needle forward in pancreatic cancer,” she said.
In October 2021, Dr. Mettu reached out to share some good news: “You had previously written about Ms. Tara Wilkes in 2018. She is now five years out from completing her therapy for pancreatic cancer and is disease-free, and what we would consider cured.”
The only drug Tara had regularly taken over the past five years was Vitamin D and Calcium.
On December 6, 2021, four years since we'd last corresponded via email and phone, Tara, her husband Neal, and I (the author of the article) reunited over Zoom — to celebrate the milestone of reaching that magic number 5, and to spread the word about pancreatic cancer for a new article.
They caught me up on the last few years.
“We've been camping and we spend time with the grandchildren. And, of course, we do a lot in the yard and things like that,” said Tara, who turned 60 in October.
The couple’s four grandchildren, all of whom live in state, are of course growing fast and there’s a fifth on the way, they shared.
Tara and Neal still live on the same lake in Rockingham. They mentioned that they now have a pontoon boat that they take out often. And that they also bought a little pop-up camper — Tara handled the remodeling and interior decorating. Together they’ve traveled and camped in their favorite spots, like Travelers Rest at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina, Bodie Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and scenic overlooks in the Georgia mountains.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Neal’s busy travel schedule as a materials planner with Campbell’s Meals & Beverages ground to a halt. Silver lining — it allowed Neal more time with Tara.
He’s been working remotely from home since the pandemic began and Tara is retired, but they haven’t felt confined. They love the outdoors and have had the good health and the means to travel.
“I thought about all these cancer patients that had to go through treatment during that time (before the vaccines) and what a scary, scary thing,” said Tara, who thanks God she no longer has the cancer burden to bear.
When the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled their family Christmas last year, Tara and Neal took a spur of the moment trip to Florida to relax; booking a place on Airbnb for several days, with golf carts for transportation.
This year, with a chill in the air and coronavirus vaccines in wide distribution, an informal cards club Tara had been part of came off hiatus. Kings in the corner, no-contract rummy, monopoly deal and other games she loves are back in full swing. The ladies rotate houses and when it’s Tara’s turn to host, she enjoys trying out new recipes and themes. Neal steers clear.
Three of Tara's friends were already battling pancreatic cancer when she was diagnosed, but she never considered that it could happen to her active, healthy self.
“When they went to take my gallbladder out that day in the ER, I can remember thinking, ‘Well, you know, I shouldn't be so afraid for them to put me to sleep … at least I don't have pancreatic cancer.’ And as soon as I come back (wake up), that's what they tell me I have.”
One friend, who had the Whipple surgery, is doing great now and one friend has since passed away. (In her case, surgery was not an option.) That friend was the first friend to come see Tara when she was at home recovering from surgery that summer of 2016.
Tara said that when she was sick she did a lot of sleeping, praying, and reaching out to others going through tough times, and that this practice has continued to this day. She hasn't forgotten where she was five-plus years ago. Having and surviving cancer changed her.
“I started thinking about other people in these circumstances and what they were going through, and I actually started sending cards and I still do this right about once a month. I keep a little prayer journal and cards and send the cards to ones who I know that are going through something right now,” said Tara, who, having felt “helpless” as a patient – “completely dependent on others” during treatment — is more committed than ever now to lend spiritual support to others in their time of need, due to cancer or otherwise.
Tara knows that she is alive today in large part because her tumor was identified early. Her cancer was limited to the pancreas and had not spread to other organs. Only about 15 to 20% of patients will meet this qualification, which is required (in most cases) in order to proceed with the complex and risky Whipple surgery.
She was fortunate to have been visibly symptomatic in addition to the “not feeling like myself” symptoms she’d been having for some time. This alerted the ER doctors, who may have otherwise thought she was "a hypochondriac," she said, to take a closer look.
Because most symptoms of pancreatic cancer are non-specific — including weight loss, vague abdominal discomfort, change in stool color or consistency — the majority of pancreatic cancer patients already have advanced or metastatic disease (cancer that has spread to distant organs) before they realize they have it and it's diagnosed.
Even if metastatic-pancreatic-cancer patients respond well to the current standard-of-care drug treatments, they have a life expectancy of about a year.
“Almost six years ago, Dr. Mettu said, ‘We're giving you the best treatment that we know at this time.’ And that's what they did,” Tara reflected. “Since then, treatment for pancreas cancer has changed somewhat. They weren’t doing the same type of therapy then that they do now. But that particular treatment for me was very successful.”
Dr. Mettu is hopeful that the odds of surviving pancreatic cancer, across all stages and types, will improve.
“We’ve made some headway with pancreatic cancer treatment for all stages of pancreatic cancer,” she said. “What we need are treatment regimens that are going to lead to longer-lasting responses, like in breast cancer. I think the longer I do this, the more I realize that aiming for a cure, in advanced cases, may not be possible but aiming for long-term disease control is very reasonable.”
5-year relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer
all stages combined: 10%
with regional spread: 13%
with metastasis to distant organs (stage 4): 3%
credit: American Cancer Society