It’s been just over four years since Jim Page entrusted his fate to a University of Colorado Cancer Center surgical oncologist after being diagnosed with precancerous cysts in his pancreas. Four years since he underwent the surgery that he credits with saving his life.
Four years that he has spent continuing to pursue his lifelong passions of skiing, hiking, mountain biking, golfing, and exploring the outdoors. Four years of spending time with his wife, Ginny, and his kids and grandkids instead of succumbing to pancreatic cancer.
“My quality of life’s been very good since the operation,” says Page, age 82. “I'm very active physically, and that’s important to me. Still being able to do the things that I so much want to do is fabulous. I’m going on a long bike ride with a friend this afternoon, going to the gym tomorrow, and going skiing Wednesday.”
He talks of recently hiking remote desert trails in Bears Ears National Monument in the wilds of southeast Utah. “It’s interesting hiking because you don’t have all the trail markers. You have to find where the trail starts and then find your way.”
Undoubtedly the luckiest feat of route finding in Page’s life was the path that took him to CU Cancer Center member Marco Del Chiaro, MD, PhD, division chief of surgical oncology in the CU Department of Surgery.
Positive and full of energy
“He was wonderful,” Page says of Del Chiaro, “and I just feel really lucky, living in the middle of the country like this, to have a program of this quality in this specialty area nearby.”
Del Chiaro returns Page’s admiration.
“He’s a special person from many perspectives,” Del Chiaro says. “I mean, he’s an ex-Olympic athlete. He lives his life always at the edge. And probably the excellent recovery he had from this surgery is related to this kind of ability of fighting and of self-caring. When you speak to him, he's positive and full of energy."
The pancreas is an abdominal organ that helps with digestion by producing enzymes that help break down fats, sugars, and starches.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 60,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, resulting in approximately 48,000 deaths. In Colorado, there are about 810 new cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed each year. Although pancreatic cancer accounts for only 3% of all cancers in the United States, it leads to about 7% of all cancer deaths. It is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and No. 2 in Colorado.
Del Chiaro says Page’s case points up the importance of prevention and early detection in warding off pancreatic cancer – and the need for further research in that area.
“Until a few years ago, there was no prevention for pancreatic cancer,” he says. “So often we speak about how much we have improved in treating pancreatic cancer, but we still do very little to try to make people aware that there is a possibility to prevent it.”
Jim Page and his family hunt for a Christmas tree in the woods. Photo courtesy Jim Page.
An active outdoor life
Page has been skiing since he was a boy growing up in Lake Placid, New York, the site of the Winter Olympics in 1932 and 1980. He was a competitive skier in high school and college, winning three individual NCAA skiing championships at Dartmouth College in the early 1960s and competing at the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, in the Nordic combined event – cross-country skiing and ski jumping.
Page then turned to coaching, first at Dartmouth (where his Big Green team shared the 1976 NCAA skiing championship with the University of Colorado Buffaloes) and then with the U.S. Olympic Ski Team before becoming an official with the U.S. Olympic Committee until retiring in 2005.
In the years since, Page has continued to pursue an active outdoor life. But in 2019, a Colorado Springs doctor near his home who administered an MRI for an unrelated issue told him, “You’ve got something in your pancreas that’s progressive, and you really need to see somebody about it,” Page recalls. “The doctor said, ‘You may require a Whipple surgery, which is a very serious surgery, and you need to find somebody who does a lot of these and who's good at it.”
So Page started investigating. “I was looking at Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic and places like that back East. I did some research on local options, too, and I was amazed and pleased to find that the CU Cancer Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus is just so good. And the more I read about Dr. Del Chiaro, the more I realized he’s really good at this, and that he was exactly who I needed.”
Page quickly discovered that he and Del Chiaro shared a love of skiing. “We almost talked more about skiing than we did about the pancreas,” Page says. “He said, ‘You really need to have this surgery, and I can do it, and I can fix you’.”
Complex and aggressive
Tests revealed that Page had developed intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasms (IPMNs) – precancerous cysts in the duct system of his pancreas. The Whipple procedure performed by Del Chiaro in August 2019 involved removing part of Page’s pancreas as well as the gall bladder and part of the small intestine, then reconnecting the remaining pancreas.
Del Chiaro described Page's surgery as “very complex and aggressive. It's the same surgery that you do for pancreatic cancer.”
Had the MRI not revealed the problem, and had Page had not received the right treatment, his lesions could have led to pancreatic cancer, Del Chiaro says.
At the CU Cancer Center, he says, “we have a clinic dedicated to people with pancreatic cysts. We see a lot of people referred to us. We have people dedicated fully to follow these patients, and once something changes and become concerning, to discuss potential surgical options.”
The CU Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the state of Colorado, ranking it among the best cancer centers in the nation. It has also been designated a Academic Center of Excellence for pancreatic cancer by the National Pancreas Foundation.
Four years later, while he remains under surveillance, Page says he feels fine and has returned to his previous vigorous lifestyle.
Recently, he participated as a walker in the City Park 5K and 1 Mile Run/Walk of Hope for Pancreatic Research, co-sponsored by the CU Cancer Center and the Division of Surgical Oncology. Del Chiaro helped organize it, and surgeon and patient met up at the event.
Marco Del Chiaro, MD, PhD (left) and Jim Page at the City Park 5K and 1 Mile Run/Walk of Hope for Pancreatic Research on Nov. 4, 2023. Photo courtesy Marco Del Chiaro.
Investment in research
Page’s advice to others facing a medical emergency: “Don’t hesitate. When you have a problem, and there's a possible solution, get it done.”
Del Chiaro adds: “The message is, if you have any concerning information about your pancreas – let’s say you get in a car accident and you get a CT scan and they find a cyst – please go to a specialist, ask what it means, and that maybe can save your life.”
He notes that people with a history of pancreatic cancer in their close family should be screened.
"Now, in the last 20 years, we’ve become more aware of another, highly prevalent category of patient, with cystic neoplasms of the pancreas,” he adds. “In a recent study, they took a healthy population of a range of ages, and they did MRIs, and they learned that cysts of the pancreas are present in about half of the population.
“Some of those are benign, but some potentially can progress to cancer. And that’s a problem, because today we can go to Mars with a rover, but we still don’t have a test to tell us for sure if a cyst can progress to cancer with high accuracy, or when it might happen. So this is an opportunity for philanthropy. We need investment in research.”
Photos at top of story courtesy Jim Page. From left: Page visiting the temples of Petra, Jordan; heading out on a bike ride; Page and his wife, Ginny, at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.