Pancreatic cancer survivor hits milestone, plans next races

Only a small percentage of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive beyond five years, but the results of Sindy Hooper's latest CT scan suggest she's about to join them. She's planning to celebrate with a marathon next month, and later, a trip to South Africa for a triathlon world championship.

Sindy Hooper, who did an Ironman triathlon while on chemotherapy, continues to beat the odds

Sindy Hooper is celebrating the fact that nearly five years after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her latest CT scan showed no sign of the return of the disease. Only a very small percentage of patients survive beyond five years. (Marc Lacroix)

Ever since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2013, Sindy Hooper has been planning her future in six-month increments punctuated by CT scans to check for recurrence.

Her latest scan last week showed no sign of cancer. And this one is extra special, coming as it does just weeks before the five-year anniversary of her diagnosis — an anniversary reached by only about seven per cent of pancreatic cancer patients in Canada, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. About half of patients in Canada die within a year.

"It's just really unbelievable," said Hooper, 54, listing "ecstatic, happy, relieved, thankful" among the adjectives to describe how she's feeling.

With each year a pancreatic cancer patient survives after diagnosis, the outlook for surviving another five years improves, according to a 2017 report from the society. After five years, the probability of living five more increases to 83.4 per cent, according to the report.

Hooper said she has no idea why she's been so lucky. She had a very healthy lifestyle both before and after diagnosis, she said, but that's also been true of other patients she's met who died very soon after diagnosis.

Endurance races a big part of unusual cancer journey

Hooper's cancer journey has been exceptional in many ways, beginning with the fact she qualified for a surgical treatment. It's called the Whipple procedure, and involved the removal of portions of her pancreas, stomach and small intestine as well as her entire gallbladder.

Chemotherapy and radiation followed that surgery. During chemotherapy she travelled to Whistler, B.C. to complete an Ironman triathlon — 225 kilometres of swimming, cycling and running. 

Hooper didn't stop there. In addition to running with a team to raise money for the Ottawa Hospital during the annual Ottawa Race Weekend, she did another Ironman race last August in Vichy, France.

While she was disappointed not to qualify for the Ironman world championship in Hawaii, Hooper quickly began training for her next athletic adventure, a half Ironman in Arizona in October.

At that race she placed third in her age group while her husband Jon Hooper placed fifth, which qualified them both for the next half Ironman world championship in Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa.

"We both put our heart and soul into that race," Hooper said. "For both of us to qualify there together was really special."

The championship is in September 2018, a few months outside Hooper's usual six month planning window. Before that, she'll spend her 55th birthday in December running a marathon in Arizona, where she hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 

Pancreatic cancer survivor Sindy Hooper and her husband Jon Hooper have qualified for the half Ironman world championship next September (Marc Lacroix)

'Keep living life to the fullest'

While Hooper is celebrating her recent clear scan and her upcoming adventures, dark thoughts of the return of cancer do sometimes intrude.

"It always seems to be at night. You wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking about it," Hooper said. "And it feels horrible … when I think about ' Wow, what if this is my next only six months? It's a huge possibility and it is very scary."

Hooper is mindful of the fact that having survived five years is no guarantee she'll beat the disease in the long run.

When she was first diagnosed, Hooper scoured the Internet in search of survivor stories, and eventually learned of a man who had survived five years with the disease and written a book about it.

That story gave her a great deal of hope at the time, but a few months ago, Hooper discovered the man died shortly after his book was published. 

"While I'm extremely happy that I've made it to five years, I'm not taking that for granted, and I'm not thinking this means I'm good now," Hooper said. "I'm going to just keep living life to the fullest and plan like heck out of the next six months."

'It feels good to be able to give people hope'

Often, she hears from other people who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, most of whom aren't able to be treated with surgery and who die quickly.

"It's very hard to keep seeing that over and over and over again," Hooper said. "But I know it's a reality, and whether I'm in contact with the people or not, you still know that's happening. It feels good to be able to give people hope anyway."

Hooper and her running group, Marathoners Gone Viral, have run to raise money for Dr. John Bell's oncolytic virus research at the Ottawa Hospital in the hope that it could eventually lead to a better treatment or cure for pancreatic cancer.

She also plans to keep sharing her own story to inspire others facing cancer or any other life struggle that feels overwhelming.

"You have to hold on to hope. Because if you're not hopeful, you're scared, and living scared is very, very difficult."