The 8-foot Fraser Fir tree was lit and the table prepared for the feast of ham, turkey, and all the trimmings. Howard Young had brought his wife and three daughters to his parents’ home in Atlanta for Christmas dinner as he’d done for years. But this time he couldn’t stay long.
Before dinner, he hugged his parents, brothers, wife and daughters goodbye and went home alone to drink foul-tasting liquid that would clear out his digestive system to prepare him for surgery the next day.
“I kind of ruined everyone’s Christmas that year,” Young (BBA ’82) says.
All this, when just a few weeks ago he thought he simply had a stomachache. Instead, he had a tumor the size of a golf ball in his pancreas.
In 2002, he became one of the nearly 34,000 Americans diagnosed each year with pancreatic cancer, a disease that kills 75 percent of its victims within a year of diagnosis. Ninety-five percent die within five years.
A complicated surgery lay ahead of him, as did months of chemotherapy. But Young would survive and gain a new sense of purpose. Now 47, the father of three is a public advocate for pancreatic cancer research and has personally raised $100,000 for that cause. He is working with scientists at UGA to land a $2.2 million research grant that could lead to early detection and possibly a new treatment for what now is the deadliest of cancers. He’s even helped further the career of a promising undergraduate researcher at UGA.
As a man of deep faith, Young says he recognizes how blessed he’s been. He also says that with his blessing comes a responsibility.
“It’s not like there’s an army of survivors out there,” Young says. “I’m one of the very few—the five percent—that survive five years. So I want to help others.”
Young had returned that November from a trip to Mexico on behalf of his family business, General Wholesale Beer Company, when he first started having stomachaches. He thought he had eaten something he shouldn’t have or picked up a virus, but after about a month with no improvement, he decided to see his doctor.
A CT scan revealed the growth in his pancreas, a carrot-shaped organ behind the stomach that secretes digestive enzymes and hormones such as insulin. Because the pancreas is deep inside the body, tumors there often go unnoticed—at least at first. In about 80 percent of cases, tumors are found only after they’ve spread to other parts of the body. At that point, surgery is not an option and the likelihood of survival decreases. Young was part of the fortunate 20 percent, and his doctor scheduled him to meet with a surgeon the next morning.
Just two days before, Young’s life was routine, his biggest problem figuring out what to get his wife, Becky (AB ’82), for Christmas. Now, he was preparing for surgery and contemplating grim odds.
“It was like boom-boom-boom; everything was happening so fast,” Young recalls.
A somber Christmas passed and at 9 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2002, doctors began surgery with a 12-inch incision that made an arc from his navel to his right hip.
Angels on Earth
The five-hour surgery was followed by a series of painful and dispiriting complications that sent him back to the hospital repeatedly for a month. But he was never alone through the ordeal, and credits the support of his family, friends and medical team with helping him through it.
Two pieces of advice helped him hold on: His doctor told him to forget the statistics. Every individual is a statistic of one, he said, and has a fighting chance. And a family friend and cancer survivor told him that he didn’t have to fight his cancer alone.
“ ‘You turn it over to God, and he’ll take you through it,’ ” she told Young. “And I did and it gave me a peace that, hey, I’m not carrying this burden by myself.”
Young lost 35 pounds after the surgery, dropping to 165 pounds on his towering, 6-feet-6-inch frame. His cheeks were sunken and his voice creaked like that of an elderly man. A walk to the mailbox felt like a grueling 20-mile hike, uphill.
It was mid-February before he had gained enough weight and regained strength to begin chemotherapy.
For three months, he’d visit the hospital every other week. For nearly eight hours at a time, he was hooked to an IV that injected a drug so powerful he could feel it burn as it entered his veins.
But Becky was there with him, and the nurses—“angels on earth,” Young calls them—also delivered infusions of love with their hugs and support.
His initial three-month regimen was followed by a 30-day break and then another three months of chemotherapy. He then underwent 29 days of radiation therapy with an oral chemotherapy drug to enhance the effect of the radiation.
At the end of October, nearly a year after he was diagnosed, his doctor told him that he had done everything that he could do.
But Young wasn’t satisfied.
A hope-filled world
Like any cancer survivor, Young’s greatest fear was that his cancer would return. He wanted to do everything he could to minimize that chance.
He heard about Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, an internationally recognized scientist who heads up the pancreatic cancer research program at the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Arizona, and made an appointment to see him. The non-profit’s mission is to translate advances in genetics into lifesaving treatments and early diagnostics, and Von Hoff leads an all-star team of researchers.
The meeting in November opened Young’s eyes to a hope-filled world where people were working to find ways to cure or prevent pancreatic cancer.
By examining tissue samples from Young’s tumor, Von Hoff found that the cells had a mutation that led them to have too much of a certain protein. With this knowledge, Von Hoff started Young on a six-month treatment regimen with so called “targeted” drugs that exclusively attack cells with this mutation.
His only side effect was a bad case of acne. But after everything he’d been through, he wasn’t about to complain.
“It’ll make me feel young again,” he says he joked.
Another Christmas came and went, and by July 2004, he was done with his treatments. He takes enzymes to help digest food and an activated form of vitamin D thought to protect against recurrence, but aside from that, he feels as if he never had cancer—at least physically.
Emotionally, however, he knew he had an obligation to help others. He raised $100,000 in two years for TGen by asking friends to sponsor him in the 10-kilometer Peachtree Road Race. He’s not a runner and struggled to stay in the middle of the pack, but just being there was an accomplishment. A year before his first race, he could barely climb a flight of steps.
He also volunteers for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCan), a non-profit that helps raise awareness and money for research. Young and his wife take calls on a hotline for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and their families, offering support and giving them a sense of what they can expect during and after treatment. Young has attended funerals of people he’s met through the hotline, but has also seen remarkable success stories—even in those who weren’t eligible for surgery.
“I’ve talked to people who have been alive for five and six years (following diagnosis), have stopped the growth and made it shrink,” he says.
A perfect union
Still searching for ways to give back, Young contacted the University of Georgia’s Honors Program in the fall of 2005 to ask about setting up a
scholarship in honor of his parents, Jane (M ’55) and Bill Young (BBA ’54).
When he asked about funding pancreatic cancer research at UGA, he was introduced to scientists Carl Bergmann and Lance Wells, a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Scientist, at the University’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center (CCRC). The state-of-the-art facility, tucked off Riverbend Road in East Campus, is one of the top centers in the nation for studying the chains of sugars, known as carbohydrates, that adorn cells and play a critical role in their function.
In December 2005, nearly three years to the day since he was diagnosed, Young endowed a $75,000 Honors Summer Research Fellowship that would allow an undergraduate student to stay on campus during the summer to continue doing research. Sana Hashmi of Martinez, Ga., received the first award and stayed in Athens during the summer working in Wells’ lab studying the carbohydrates on a protein known as alpha DG. The carbohydrates are attached to the surface of the protein like legs on a spider. Mutations that shorten or remove these “legs” are thought to make it more likely that a cancerous cell will become unanchored and spread to other parts of the body.
Over the summer of 2006, Hashmi and her lab mates created a map of the carbohydrates identifying their location and order. Her findings were so significant that the sophomore was invited to present them at an international scientific meeting. Along with chemistry graduate student Stephanie Hammond, Hashmi also plans to publish her results in a prestigious scientific journal, something most scientists don’t do until they start working on their Ph.D.
“The fact that I can show the world (my findings) as a 19 year old—that’s just amazing to me,” she says. “It’s because of this funding and because of Howard that I could do it.”
Young’s work with Bergmann, Wells and other CCRC researchers could result in a new way to diagnose pancreatic cancer early, when it’s more easily treated, or possibly in a new treatment. In collaboration with TGen, the researchers have applied for a $2.2 million National Institutes of Health grant to study pancreatic tissue and fluid samples to see if differences in the carbohydrates can be used to differentiate cancerous pancreatic cells from healthy cells. The Georgia Research Alliance has agreed to provide funds for needed equipment if the grant application is successful. The idea is to create a simple blood test to diagnose the disease and ultimately find a new treatment for pancreatic cancer.
Neither TGen nor UGA could have done the research alone. Brought together by Young, however, they now have a chance at revolutionizing pancreatic cancer prevention and treatment.
“TGen has the clinical expertise and the samples, but they don’t really have the capability to analyze them the way they want to,” Wells explains. “We have the expertise and the technology in place but don’t have the samples. It’s really a perfect union.”
For Young, the grant is part of a broader effort to help fight a disease that brought him to the brink of death.
“God willing,” Young says. “I’m going to do everything I can within my power to attack this thing.”
For more information:
PanCan, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network: www.pancan.org
TGen, the Translational Genomics Research Institute: www.tgen.org
Gifts to the UGA Honors Program, undergraduate research or cancer research at UGA can be made by contacting Dorothe Otemann, director of development, UGA Honors Program, 1 Moore College, Athens, GA 30602; (706) 583-0698; firstname.lastname@example.org.