From the moment you meet Kim Vernick, you cannot help but be attracted to her positive energy and the joy she clearly takes from life.
"I have many key roles in my world," she says, introducing herself. "Above all, I'm a wife, I'm a mother, and I'm a friend."
She launches into the telling of her story without hesitation, sharing her personal truths with ease.
"In 2010, I went to my doctor and said I had a stomach ache," she recalls. "He said he was 99% sure it was nothing, but he sent me over for a test just to be sure. So I go into Penn, and they made me very, very comfortable. They did the tests, I get up, and the results come back immediately.
"Then the radiologist says, 'I'm sorry, you have pancreatic cancer.'"
Even now, Kim's voice is quivering as she remembers the moment.
"I turned to my husband and said 'We're going to beat this. No matter what, we're going to beat this.'"
Pancreatic cancer is often accompanied by a poor prognosis, even when it is diagnosed in early stages. Traditionally, symptoms do not manifest themselves until the cancer is advanced, and at that point complete surgical removal may not be possible.
The disease usually spreads aggressively, often without detection in early stages, which helps account for the fact that it's a leading cause of cancer mortality.
"With pancreatic cancer, usually they try to operate," Kim notes, quoting her personal online research. "If it's not operable, there is no cure. Historically, you have to get to that surgery table to be cured.
"By the time I was first diagnosed, my tumor was already wrapped around blood vessels and arteries, so they could not operate. So the goal was to shrink the tumor."
Fortunately for Kim, there was one Pennsylvania medical center that offers more clinical trials than any other facility in the region - Penn Medicine.
"I chose Penn's Abramson Cancer Center because they had clinical trials, and one particular trial protocol that was a good fit for my condition," she says, sharing the hopeful attitude that helped her through those days. "It was going to be rigorous, it was going to be intense, and it was going to make me a little bit sick, but I had no doubt that it was worth it."
"And now I was in for a long journey."
Kim sets her jaw as she recalls the experience, providing a glimpse into her determination. She ticks off the elements of her personal treatment plan.
"So now I had radiation, and I had chemotherapy I wore 24 hours a day, and with that once a week for 6 or 8 weeks I had other drugs," she remembers, nodding at the thought. "Actually I had two other drugs – a specific part of the therapy – to enhance the medical potency of everything else that I was getting. All in hopes that the tumor would shrink."
"Then, after the treatment, I called the surgeon at Penn," she continues, her voice breaking with emotion. "And he says 'Kim, great news: you're now operable.'"
Even years later, she still sighs with relief, remembering how she felt upon hearing these words.
The surgery was a success. And afterwards, the tumor appeared to be completely eradicated.
She looks down and shakes her head. "But unfortunately, with pancreatic cancer, it's a nasty one. It has a tendency to come back sometimes."
"We knew that was a possibility, and it was in July that it appeared once again. August 1, I started another protocol with the team at Penn." Kim looks up as she speaks, the rising confidence now audible in her voice. "Only this time, because medical technology is changing daily, weekly, it's changing so fast that now they could offer me this amazing new treatment called proton therapy."
"Dr. Metz, my radiation oncologist, said 'We're going to get this. This is nothing. It's little; it's nothing like what you had last time.'"
Dr. James Metz is Chair, Department of Radiation Oncology at Penn Medicine, and Associate Director for Clinical Service and Programs at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center.
"At Penn Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology, we are really pushing the frontiers of medicine," Dr. Metz confides. "We've brought in solutions that no other facility in the area has, collaborative and scientific programs like the proton therapy treatment plans we have at the Roberts Proton Therapy Center.
"These new technologies allow us to practice medicine in ways that we never could before. We have a multidisciplinary cancer team, and we all work together to help every patient get through the disease process. That way we can come up with a plan that integrates the best of all these different care paths.
"Here, we have every option."
Kim Vernick believes that she herself is a living testimonial to the success of the Penn Medicine personalized interdisciplinary approach.
"Today, I'm cancer free," she declares, with tones of both joy and relief.
Like many patients who have defeated cancer, Kim is now inspired by the desire to share her experience, and her hope and boundless positive energy, with others who may just be starting down the path she has traveled.
"You need to be someplace that's going to treat your cancer," she says, emphasizing the last two words. "Penn treated my cancer. They didn't treat pancreatic cancer. They treated my pancreatic cancer."
"Penn is there to help. Penn is there to do whatever we need to fight our cancer. The cure is within."