Amber Henry, 34, has struggled with gallbladder issues for years. Henry, her partner and their children live in Crossville where they enjoy playing outside and caring for their chickens.
In 2020, Henry was hospitalized for a severe episode of pancreatitis, a condition that causes abdominal pain or gastrointestinal bleeding because of an inflamed pancreas. She subsequently had her gallbladder removed in hopes that would resolve her symptoms.
Discovering a Tumor
Two years later, however, the abdominal pain returned. Additional diagnostic testing revealed a blockage of her common bile duct and pancreatic duct by a neuroendocrine tumor on her pancreas that wasn’t previously visible. Henry was relieved to learn the cause of her symptoms, but shocked when she received a diagnosis that the tumor was cancerous.
She then met David Roife, MD, surgical oncologist at Fort Sanders Regional. According to Dr. Roife, a neuroendocrine tumor can occur anywhere in the body. He says the type of cancer cells in a neuroendocrine tumor are different from standard pancreatic cancer, in which the cells come from the pancreatic ducts.
Neuroendocrine tumors arise from specialized endocrine cells that regulate circulatory hormones in the body. In the pancreas, these cells regulate blood sugar by secreting insulin and glucagon to lower and raise blood sugar, respectively. However, many neuroendocrine tumors do not secrete hormones.
In early 2022, Dr. Roife performed a procedure called a “Whipple” to remove Henry’s tumor. This complex surgery involves removing the end of the stomach, the entire duodenum, the end of the common bile duct and gallbladder (when present) and the head of the pancreas. The remaining small intestine is then reconnected to restore the function of the gastrointestinal tract and allow the patient to eat and digest food.
Dr. Roife explains that the “Whipple” procedure was done because of the location of the tumor. He removed the tumor and surrounding lymph nodes to ensure no cancerous cells were left behind. He says Henry recovered well from surgery without any major complications.
“It is uncommon for such a young person to have this type of tumor. The neuroendocrine tumor occurs in one case per 1,000 people per year, and makes up only one to two percent of pancreatic tumors.”
At Fort Sanders Regional
Henry was closely monitored during her recovery at Fort Sanders Regional. As she healed, she was able to digest food normally again. Although the first two days after surgery are a blur, she says the nurses and staff were great during her hospital stay.
“The nurses I had were phenomenal. Dr. Roife was gentle and understanding. I would refer anyone to him. He has a way of explaining things that make sense, and he has a great bedside manner.”
She recovered slowly. For several weeks she couldn’t lift anything over five pounds. Eventually, she regained her strength and returned to work. The only dietary change she made was to avoid fried foods following surgery, as they can upset the new intestinal tract.
Henry now visits her oncologist every six months for bloodwork and will have regular CT scans to check for any additional cancerous cells.
Dr. Roife says, “Ms. Henry will continue regularly scheduled surveillance. Her prognosis is very good, and she has great chances to live a normal lifespan with no recurrence. Had she not had surgery at that time, she would be at risk for the cancer to progress and spread to other parts of her body, in turn drastically decreasing the chances of long-term survival.”
Henry says, “I was taken care of by the staff at Fort Sanders Regional and the medical professionals along my journey. I learned how to advocate for myself and to watch for things I notice or experience in my body.”
As a mom of three children and two step-children, Henry describes her experience as both a curse and a blessing. “Because of everything that has occurred over the past six years, it’s a curse because it affected my pregnancies and took so long to pinpoint. But it’s a blessing because they caught the cancer early, and I can advocate for my children to listen to their bodies so they will know if something is wrong.”
Dr. Roife encourages patients to consult their doctor if they experience unexplained abdominal pain, trouble digesting food, jaundice or dramatic and unexplained weight loss. “Those are symptoms that something is going on, and it’s good to ask your doctor for further examination.”
Fort Sanders Regional’s surgical capabilities are transforming the surgery experience for patients in East Tennessee. We provide patients with more options, including minimally invasive and robotic-assisted procedures. If you need help finding a physician, call 865-673-FORT.
Information for this article provided by Covenant Health.