When Michael Weinstein went into an emergency room in November 2005 to be treated for diverticulitis, it was discovered that the cause of his abdominal pain was far more serious than the irritation of his large intestine.
“They did a scan, and the doctor said, ‘You have a tumor in your pancreas,’” Weinstein said.
A biopsy showed the growth was pancreatic cancer, a disease that disproportionately strikes African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jews.
To Weinstein, who was then 56, and to some 43,000 other Americans who hear such news every year, that diagnosis sounds like death sentence.
It is a disease without any cure or means of early detection. According to statistics, three quarters of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer die within a year.
But Weinstein has defied those tough odds. Despite some setbacks, surgery and intense chemotherapy have helped him survive for nearly five years.
“I’m a lucky guy,” he told NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview on Sept. 1. “I am very blessed that I’m still here.”
Weinstein said his days now are “completely normal.” He works full time as a certified public accountant and enjoys life in Millburn with his wife, Nancy, his daughters, Marla and Bethany, and his friends and fellow congregants at nearby Congregation B’nai Israel.
He also devotes much energy to the New Jersey chapter of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
“My message for people who have been diagnosed is: ‘Don’t give up hope. Even if you are told there is a million-to-one chance of survival, you could be that one.’ We are fighting to eradicate this terrible disease that is the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in the United States.”
To a West Orange middle school teacher named Todd Cohen, Weinstein’s five years of surviving represent a rare victory in a very difficult war.
Cohen, who serves as New Jersey’s PCAN media representative, lost his father, Richard, and his great-aunt, Lucille Gilbert, to pancreatic cancer.
“When I hear of Michael’s survival and see him beat the odds, it adds a significant amount of hope and promise to this difficult battle. He’s quite a role model for others to emulate,” he told NJJN in an e-mail interview.
To many people’s dismay, patient advocates involved with different deadly diseases find themselves in competition for private donations and government funding.
“It does not get the kind of publicity it deserves, and that is what we are trying to change,” said Weinstein.
As Weinstein joined fellow volunteers near home plate of the baseball field in Bridgewater on July 10, he observed the town’s Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day by reading a proclamation by Mayor Patricia Flannery.
One section said, “The federal government invests less money — only 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s research budget — in pancreatic cancer research.”
That figure is “far too low, given the severity of the disease,” said the proclamation.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we have seen that happen with other diseases, such as breast cancer and AIDS,” Cohen said.
“Those diseases are all bad, and something has to be done to cure all of them,” said Weinstein. “But over the last 30 years there has been no significant change to the statistics for pancreatic cancer.”
PCAN’s top priority is to win increased support for the clinical drug trials “that play an important role in developing new treatments for the disease,” according to Cohen.
“There are not enough survivors to act as squeaky wheels on behalf of other pancreatic cancer patients,” he said. “Michael is such a valuable resource because he’s lived through this battle firsthand. He is a constant reminder of why we are doing what we do.”
His words rang with urgency and determination.
“The disease is still on the rise,” he said. “If nothing is done to impact the upward trend, five years from now nearly 200,000 Americans will have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but only 10,000 of them will still be around to contribute to their families, society, and the cause. We must change the course of this disease.”
Weinstein said he views his future as “open-ended. I look forward to a long, wonderful life with my family and, hopefully, to have grandchildren. I am a very happy guy.”