Updated: Jan 13
He thinks it started with daily headaches, chronic inflammation in his back and shoulders, and lots of Ibuprofen, but he can't be sure. Fatigue and sleeplessness preceded the headache. However, to Ricky, these weren't symptoms; exhaustion and insomnia had been a part of his life for years.
Ricky is a railroad conductor. In five years, he has never had a set schedule. On-call six days a week, his job requires him to be accessible at all times. When the call comes in, he has two hours - heading across town or sometimes across state lines - to report to work. Often, last minute calls ended up being days on the tracks. If the two-hour window is missed, he risks getting disciplined. Regardless, Ricky loves his job.
Persistent heartburn appeared after 10-months of headaches and neck pain. Ricky tried all the home remedies and OTC meds that typically get rid of indigestion, but none worked. At first, he wasn't concerned; he blamed years of spicy foods and hoped dietary changes with OTC medication would eventually resolve the problem and pressed on.
Weeks passed. New symptoms appeared. Sharp bolts of pain pierced through his upper right abdomen and gradually extended to his shoulder. At the same time, he began to lose weight, approximately 2.5 lbs a week. Ricky didn't mind losing weight at first, but it soon became apparent this wasn't normal; something was wrong. With spicy foods out of his diet, Ricky was now concerned his regular use of Ibuprofen had given him an ulcer. Finally, he decided to seek medical care.
Strategically planned so it would not impact his work schedule, Ricky's first visit was to the local ER early one evening where bloodwork, a chest x-ray, and an EKG were done. After hours of waiting, the ER doctor came in to report the tests were all clear, and the only reasonable diagnosis was a strained abdominal muscle. Puzzled, since most of his symptoms seemed clearly GI-related, Ricky questioned how a muscle strain could cause heartburn and weight loss and then asked for a CT scan. The doctor ignored his question and refused to order the scan. While Ricky explained there had been pulmonary nodules on a CT scan he'd had years earlier, the doctor even snapped back at him, telling him there was no cancer that day. Ricky's discharge orders gave him, for all intents and purposes, a clean bill of health, with a minor note of advice to continue taking the Zantac and Prilosec for his heartburn. He left the ER feeling marginalized, frustrated and falsely reassured of his health.
After another week of excruciating heartburn, late-night train trips, and painful hotel stays, Ricky made a second visit, this time to an Urgent Care Clinic. Unfortunately, their response was no different. "Give the heartburn medicine time to work," was their advice. After his second attempt failed, Ricky scheduled an appointment with a gastroenterologist. The doctor's first available appointment was weeks away, but it was his only option.
Two missed opportunities. Why were the doctors so dismissive? Why deny Ricky's request for a CT scan? The questions are endless — the answers complex. Overcrowding, doctor burnout, patient profiling are a few reasons we commonly hear. In urgent and emergency care centers, patients are often like baggage on a security belt; doctors are the TSA agents, rushing patients through to avoid wait times.
Several weeks went by. Three days before the appointment with the GI specialist, Ricky almost blacked out while moving a piece of furniture. This was the final straw; he knew something was wrong. He needed answers, so Ricky got in his car and drove to Charlottesville, Virginia, to UVA University Hospital.
Almost immediately after checking in to UVA's ER, blood was drawn, and pancreatic and liver enzyme levels ordered. A nurse wheeled in an ultrasound machine, followed shortly by a doctor who performed the ultrasound. During the exam, the transducer picked up something that alarmed the doctor, who subsequently ordered a CT scan. Many hours later, he was admitted to the hospital.
The following afternoon, the CT results came back. Ricky finally got an answer; it wasn't the one he wanted. Metastatic cancer in the abdomen. The doctor suspected the type was pancreatic, as there were tumors in the pancreas, liver, lymph nodes, and abdominal wall. Tissue from the tumor in his liver was taken and sent off for a biopsy that came back a few days later.
Stage IV, Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma. The diagnosis hit Ricky hard. He'd feared it could be cancer but wasn't prepared. A few weeks later, Ricky finally met his oncologist who recommended FOLFIRNOX as the first-line treatment and informed him that, without the chemo, he had approximately 6 months to live. Any hope Ricky had disappeared. He reconciled himself to the fact he was dying.
He began chemotherapy, FOLFIRINOX, a 4-drug cocktail. It was very aggressive, and its side effects were harsh. However, it alleviated some of the symptoms from the cancer. After 12 weeks of FOLFIRINOX, another CT scan showed the cancer had not grown, but it also had not shrunk. Overall, it was a poor result. The oncologist changed the regimen to ABRAXANE + gemcitibine.
After giving the new chemo time to work, another CT scan was done and confirmed the treatment was successful. Ricky's body was responding positively; tumors were shrinking, and the side effects of the chemo itself were much less severe than with FOLFIRINOX. For the first time since he heard the news, Ricky felt hopeful.
One day, after receiving the positive news, Ricky picked up a book a friend passed along to him. This book, The Metabolic Approach to Cancer by Nashi Winters and Jess Higgins, was eye-opening and gave him a whole new - and he believes a much more accurate - understanding of his disease. In a matter of hours, he absorbed every page of the book ...all 408 of them!
From what he learned in the book, Ricky completely modified his diet. He eliminated sugar and began eating only organic meat and vegetables. He addEd supplemental calories with a natural enteral nutrition formula from KateFarms. He supplemented his failing digestive system with Creon, which contains the essential pancreatic enzymes Protease, Amylase, and Lipase. These enzymes, or their supplements, allow our bodies to absorb protein, carbs, and fat.
The results have been amazing! His tumors continue to shrink, and he continues to gain weight. According to the doctor's prediction, by now, he'd be long gone without treatment ("and change in diet", Ricky adds), but he's sticking around! He's not only alive; he's actively living and wants to share what he learned from his research and personal experiences.
Here are a few things Ricky would like for everyone, especially pancreatic cancer patients, to know. In his own words .....
"- Consider reading The Metabolic Approach to Cancer if you or a loved one is affected by cancer.
- Research and talk to a nutritionist about supplemental nutrition. Do not fall for Ensure shakes (They have extremely high sugar content!) and the eat-whatever-you-can narrative.
- Exercise 20 minutes a day, every day. You'll feel better and avoid muscle atrophy.
- DRINK WATER (at least 64oz a day) NO SODA.
- Stop Drinking Alcohol. (Common sense with liver involvement)
- Vitamins: I won't mention any specifically because I'm not qualified, but do your research and start somewhere. Liver health is very important.
- Get second, third, fourth opinions. Specialized cancer hospitals with qualified professionals are an incredible wealth of information. Even if they are too far to be convenient for treatment, they can guide local oncologists and treatment centers, who often do not have the knowledge or expertise needed to treat pancreatic cancer.
- Be your own advocate, don't take this quietly, ask questions, demand answers. The squeaky wheel gets greased!
- Trust Your Gut! If it doesn't feel right, then it most likely isn't.
- A lot of what I'm reading suggests our poor diet contributes to many cancers. Take a look at the junk you are eating and make a change for the better.
- I'm viewing this in an every-little-bit-helps sort of way, here are a few things I'm doing that may seem odd, but I think are worth the effort:
Infrared Sauna for detoxification and other benefits. (Do a lot of research because the cheap ones can be dangerous.)
Grounding to possibly reduce chronic inflammation.
Essiac Tea ( herbal tea rumored to fight cancer )
Rebounding (jumping on a trampoline ) to increase lymphatic drainage."
"I hope reading this opens people's eyes to the many inadequacies surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic and other GI cancers. I'm also obligated to tell you to follow your dreams! Planning for the future seems like the right thing to do, but your future isn't guaranteed. I myself have always dreamed of Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail (A 2,192 mile long hiking trail from Georgia to Maine). If this disease wins, I may never get to experience my dream. If it doesn't and I somehow escape without diabetes, you can bet I'll be out there hiking! F CANCER!"
- Ricky Schmidt
As the owner of this blog, I want to thank Ricky for sharing his story. The last part of the post is exclusively his own words. However, he also helped with other parts, carefully editing my drafts to make sure all details were accurate and even wordsmithing at times. He says he did poorly in creative writing classes in school, but I'm not convinced.
If you'd like to keep up with Ricky and follow his progress and adventures to come, including hiking the Appalachian Trial, visit and follow via his YouTube Channel, The.RR.Outdoorsman.