Around Christmas 2016, Karen Kiernan was enjoying the holidays at her family home in Truckee, Calif., when she began to experience back pain. Kiernan, who had retired from her 32-year career as a registered nurse only six months previously, originally chalked the pain up to an earlier fall or a strain from shoveling snow. At the same time, she had already begun a paleo diet which she thought would help relieve the digestive issues that had been bothering her for several months. She attributed her weight loss to this new clean eating lifestyle.
Unfortunately, the cause for these symptoms was something much more severe: stage IV pancreatic cancer. She received the news in March 2017.
“I never dreamed I would ever get cancer,” said Kiernan. “I always took care of myself, and there was no history of cancer in my family. The diagnosis came as a complete shock.”
Kiernan knew she needed to start doing some research to learn more about her options, but with the overwhelming diagnosis, she found herself feeling anxious and depressed. Her sister stepped in to support her and found information about the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) in the materials shared by Kiernan’s hospital.
“Within a day, my sister called me telling me all about molecular profiling through Know Your Tumor®,” Kiernan said.
Kiernan understood that learning the molecular profile of her tumor could help inform the best treatment decisions. During the fall, when going in for a stent replacement surgery, Kiernan had her doctors collect a tissue sample from her tumor that could be utilized for molecular profiling.
The next moment is what changed everything. In early 2018, Kiernan received a call from her sister with the tumor profiling results.
“My sister was laughing and crying. She was experiencing every emotion,” Kiernan said. “She was helping so much, and I had given her permission to receive information from PanCAN, so she saw the email first.”
The molecular profiling results of Kiernan’s tumor showed that she had a rare mutation found in only about 1-3 percent of pancreatic cancer patients. This specific characteristic is known to respond well to an immunotherapy drug that had been approved a year or so earlier, called Keytruda.
Kiernan began treatment with Keytruda in April 2018 and within a week, she says she began feeling like herself again. Her back pain subsided and when she stepped on the scale, she noticed she had gained two pounds. To date, Kiernan’s scans continue to be stable.
With this new lease on life, Kiernan is looking forward to more happy moments with her husband, three children and seven grandchildren, including baby Charley who was born just last month.
As a travel lover and self-proclaimed “foodie,” Kiernan is most excited about an upcoming trip to France to visit the Julia Child cooking school.
“I know I’ll always be on treatment. But because I’m feeling better, I’ll get to do more of the things I love,” Kiernan said.
Kiernan is also taking the opportunity to give back. She made a generous donation to PanCAN to help ensure other patients would have access to resources such as Know Your Tumor, a service that she feels helped provide her more options. She has also trained her new mini Australian labradoodle, Lucy, as an emotional support animal and therapy dog. Kiernan plans to bring Lucy to the hospital in Truckee where she was first diagnosed to visit the men and women going through cancer treatments.
More than anything, Kiernan wants to continue to share her story so others can learn about resources like the Know Your Tumor service offered by PanCAN.
“There are some days I wake up and I don’t feel as strong as I want to be,” Kiernan said. “But I have to reach down there, somewhere, to find the strength to keep going, because this disease isn’t going to stop me.”
Any treatments, including clinical trials, mentioned in this story may not be appropriate or available for all patients. Doctors take many things into account when prescribing treatments including the stage and type of cancer and the overall health of the patient. Contact PanCAN Patient Services for personalized treatment options.