Stronger by the Day

Peter Allen, MD, performing the Whipple Procedure

Long an advocate for others with cancer, Nancy Wright is in the middle of her second battle with the disease. It has solidified her belief in Duke as a place for personalized, advanced care.

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DCI Board of Advisors member Nancy Wright during a visit to Duke in August 2021. Photo by Les Todd.

In 1988, Nancy Wright successfully beat breast cancer. But at the time, she didn’t know any other cancer survivors. “Nobody talked about cancer back then. I realize just how uneducated I was about cancer in general,” she says.

Her mother-in-law, who was a member of an organization that existed at the time called the Duke Cancer Institute (DCI) Citizens Advisory Council, arranged for a two-time breast cancer survivor to speak to a group near Wright’s home in Lexington, North Carolina.

Shortly after that, in 1994, Wright joined the DCI Citizens Advisory Council, then later the DCI Board of Advisors. She found it exciting and educational to hear from other survivors and cancer researchers. “The council encouraged us to be advocates and to write letters to our legislators asking for increased funding for cancer research,” she says. “That was my first foray into political activism.”

Over the years, Nancy and her husband, Gordon, have been loyal supporters of research at DCI and at the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke, as well as the Duke Marine Lab.

Nancy began thinking of herself as someone who advocated for others with cancer. Patients should ask lots of questions about their care, and they should expect answers, she says. She advocated for her husband as he successfully fought lymphoma with Duke’s help, and she has advised countless friends and family.

She has always told her friends to go to Duke for cancer care because of the access to the latest evidence-based treatments and new therapies available through clinical trials. “If not Duke, go to one of the three National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in North Carolina. We’re fortunate to have three. Some states don’t have any,” she says.

A Heart-Dropping Diagnosis

Nancy and Gordon Wright with Michael Kastan, MD, PhD
Nancy and Gordon Wright with DCI Executive Director Michael Kastan, MD, PhD, (middle) at the 2014 Shingleton Awards Ceremony, where the Wrights won the Shingleton Award for exceptional service and generosity in furthering the DCI's mission to defeat cancer.

In February 2021, Nancy had to follow her own advice. One morning she woke up jaundiced. She felt fine, but consulted with her primary care doctor. Results of her blood tests were normal, but her liver values were elevated. 

When subsequent tests showed her liver values had worsened, her doctor ordered a CT scan.

The scan showed a tumor in her pancreas. ”Well, my heart just went through the floor,” Nancy says. “I thought, besides glioblastoma, I can’t have anything worse.”

The cancer was stage 2. Duke surgeon Peter Allen, MD, performed surgery right away. Nancy needed the Whipple procedure, a complex operation to remove parts of the pancreas, the small intestine, gall bladder, and stomach, then reattach the remaining portions so they can function.

“Dr. Allen was so very positive, and he reassured me,” Nancy says. The surgery went well. She didn’t have a lot of pain, and the 10-day recovery was easier than she expected.

The treatment afterward was the challenging part for her. She could tolerate only four weeks of the planned eight-week chemotherapy regimen. She lost more than 50 pounds.

She hadn’t realized how weak she had become. “It was all I could do to leave the cancer center and walk to the parking deck,” she says. “When I was at my worst, Gordon had to help me up those three steps. I did not have the strength to get up the steps, and it really surprised me.”

Nancy has worked through it with the help of her husband of 52 years. She feels stronger now, able to climb the stairs leading to their beach home without stopping to rest. She is cooking and enjoying some of her favorite foods again, like fresh summer corn. Listening to the waves is its own form of therapy.

“Right now, I am in a holding pattern of recovering strength, gaining weight, and eating,” she says. 

Once she is stronger, she hopes to work with her oncologist, James Abbruzzese, MD, to try a different treatment regimen tailored to her. “As anxious as I am about not being treated right now, because I know how aggressive pancreatic cancer is, I also know that my team has my best interests at heart,” she says.

Friends who have been treated elsewhere have told her that sometimes they felt their doctors weren’t listening to them. She has found the opposite at Duke. “Dr. Abbruzzese has been really good about answering my questions,” she says.

“You cannot foster an interest in research early enough. As my granddaughter says, ‘Why can’t I be the one to discover a cure for cancer?’ You have to love the passion and optimism of youth.” — Nancy Wright

Nancy is optimistic about the future, including the hope of defeating all cancer if young researchers are supported. The Wrights’ granddaughter, Elyse, has an interest in science and cancer research, and she interned in the lab of Duke cancer researcher Jason Somarelli, PhD, during her junior year of high school. She is now a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill and is working in the lab of a cancer researcher there.

Elyse credits Somarelli with encouraging her passion for research. “Dr. Somarelli valued my thoughts and questions, and he was the first person to really challenge my thinking and push me to think more critically,” she says.

“You cannot foster an interest in research early enough,” Nancy says. “As my granddaughter says, ‘Why can’t I be the one to discover a cure for cancer?’ You have to love the passion and optimism of youth.”

Circle photo, at top: In a photo from Duke Surgery magazine, Peter Allen, MD, performs the Whipple Procedure to remove diseased tissue from the pancreas. Photo by Ken Huth.