Battling the odds against pancreatic cancer

The fact that he’s battling pancreatic cancer long after most have succumbed to it barely enters Bob Maloney’s mind — until he does the most trivial, mundane tasks that will, in all likelihood, outlive him.

When he’s detaching the battery cables to their car in Queens, New York before heading to their condo in North Palm for the winter, he wonders, “Will Diane know how to do this if I’m not around in six months?”

Or will his wife of 22 years, Diane Curry, be left to figure out the task alone?

“I don’t think about any of that stuff,” she tells him, her eyes welling up. “I think about missing you.”

Maloney and Curry have had what few other with this disease have had: Time. Despite three surgeries, Maloney is alive nearly 3 and a half years since he was diagnosed. That number is an outlier for a disease that has the lowest survival rate of any cancer.

Three out of four people die within the first year of being diagnosed. A staggering 94 percent will not live past five.

Maloney, a retired New York firefighter, is battling in that treacherous middle ground.

“You live waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said.

But if his example shows anything, he says, it’s hope. Hope for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and their families. Hope that this disease will gain more attention — November was pancreatic cancer awareness month, though most people think of it only as diabetes awareness month. And the hope that has made breast cancer and prostate cancer survivable conditions.

Hope that personal stories like his — and those of actors Patrick Swayze and Michael Landon, who died of the disease — will bring attention and, more important, research dollars to this cause.

“You have to try to make the best of every day,” Maloney said.

Why has he lived this long? Mostly, doctors think, because he listened to his body.

When Maloney felt a consistent pain in his stomach and side in July of 2009 for more than a month, he went to see the doctor. Statistics say that men are reticent to acknowledge a medical condition and worse about following up with a doctor. But when Maloney went in for a sonogram check of his abdomen, doctors immediately saw the tumor on his pancreas.

“We knew almost nothing about it,” Maloney said, “except all these famous people who had died from it.”

That afternoon, he was meeting with an oncologist. And 10 days later, he was undergoing an 11-hour surgery to remove a cancerous mass on his pancreas.

They had caught it early.

In the years since, he has undergone two more surgeries to remove masses that spread to his liver. And he has withstood two rounds of chemotherapy that zapped him of his strength and his hair. He lost more than 25 pounds and sometimes felt on the edge of death itself.

But mostly, he withstood, enduring long enough to see a life many other pancreatic cancer patients do not.

In these 40 months, he has lived another lifetime: He watched their two daughters get married; his daughter Tara had twin babies and Maloney and Curry were at the hospital for the birth; they’ve traveled, despite his condition, to Spain, Vienna, and Prague.

And for the last three years, he has participated in the annual Lustgarten Foundation’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk in Jones Beach, New York, along with his wife and daughters.

“A lot of great things have happened since he was diagnosed,” Curry said. “I hope we look back in 10 or 15 years and laugh about how we tried to squeeze all these things in.”

More than living his own life, Maloney wants to help other pancreatic cancer victims live, as well. It is, after all, the fourth-deadliest cancer.

But funding is a major obstacle. Breast and prostate cancers not only have the highest survival rate past five years — 94 and 100 percent, respectively — they are also the best funded by the National Cancer Institute.

Pancreatic cancer, which has only a 6 percent survival rate, receives only about 2 percent of the research dollars. No early-detection tests have been developed for a disease whose symptoms (abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, diabetes) can be overlooked.

Two of Maloney’s close friends — former fellow New York firefighters — died from the disease. One died within months, his cancer caught late — as are most cases of pancreatic cancer. The other, who was treated early, lived more than two years.

Maloney has seen that where there is research money, there is hope and life.

And he has shown, in his own example, how much one family can do with just a little more time.

“We’ve started to feel luck,” Diane Curry said. “And we want to do something to make a difference in the lives of other people.”