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A Survival Story: How One Man Beat the Dire Odds of Pancreatic Cancer

Joseph Derillo knew the odds of surviving this deadly cancer were low, but enduring a complex Whipple procedure and chemotherapy saved his life.

Joseph Derillo was being treated for a bleeding ulcer in fall 2018 when his doctor referred him to a Jefferson Health gastroenterologist in Center City because “something he saw during a procedure concerned him.” Looking back, Derillo believes he must have had an “angel on my shoulder” leading him to Jefferson. Shortly after, in December 2018, Derillo got a shock that brought him to his knees: he was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer—the type of cancer with one of the highest mortality rates. In fact, for all stages of pancreatic cancer combined, the five-year survival rate is only nine percent. But Joe Derillo made a decision

Joe Derillo refereeing a wrestling match

Joe Derillo refereeing a wrestling match.

to put his trust in his medical team and fight for his life. Thankfully for him and his family, Derillo is alive today, playing golf on a regular basis, serving as a wrestling official for the state of New Jersey (something he’s enjoyed since the mid-1970s), and listening to his favorite band: The Beach Boys.

Whipple Procedure Performed in Philadelphia

The 69-year-old Marlton, New Jersey, resident says he wouldn’t be where he is today if it wasn’t for the expert care he received through Jefferson medical experts on both sides of the river. Dr. Charles Yeo, senior vice president and chair of Enterprise Surgery at Jefferson Health, and his team performed a Whipple procedure on Derillo at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia in January 2019. The Whipple procedure involves removing the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine (called the duodenum), the gallbladder and the bile duct. After removal, the remaining organs are put back together to allow the patient to properly digest food.

“The Whipple procedure is one of the most complex operations in surgery. It’s often said that the pancreas is the rattlesnake of the abdomen—we were even taught in medical school to avoid touching it at all costs,” said Dr. Yeo. “So, directly operating on the pancreas, with all of its important structures, and then putting things back together can be risky.”

Despite these complexities, Dr. Yeo was committed to helping Derillo—and Derillo had total faith in Dr. Yeo. “The first time I met him, I told him I knew he was the right doctor for me because we both love The Beach Boys. He told me later that he played some Beach Boys songs during my surgery,” Derillo recalled. “Everyone working at Jefferson was fantastic—from the nurses to the doctors, to the people who came in to clean my room.”

Forty percent of Whipple procedure patients have some post-operative complications, and Derillo was no exception. Dr. Yeo later had to operate on Derillo again to repair an incisional hernia—a type of hernia that forms at the site of a healing surgical scar. But with the support of his family and the stellar staff at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, Derillo recovered successfully. “He’s such a special person. He just exudes positivity,” Dr. Yeo says.

Adjuvant Chemotherapy in New Jersey

After removing Derillo’s tumor, the Jefferson Health pathology team discovered cancer in many of his removed lymph nodes: “We recommended that he meet with the oncology team and consider chemotherapy,” said Dr. Yeo. Adjuvant chemotherapy is a type of treatment used after initial cancer treatment to suppress secondary cancer formation and improve the rate of recovery and survival.

Dr. James Posey, a medical oncology specialist at Jefferson Health, met with Derillo after his surgery to plan his continued care. “For most patients who have undergone a Whipple procedure, we suggest adjuvant chemotherapy for a period of six months. Mr. Derillo came in for treatment every other week for those six months,” said Dr. Posey.

“I had an IV port put in at Jefferson Methodist Hospital, which was used for my chemotherapy treatments at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township,” said Derillo. At a location close to home, he received convenient treatments on a regular basis. Joe even made friends with some of the other patients in the New Jersey infusion suite and built a relationship with the nurses and staff. “My wife and I would bring pretzels in to share with the staff as a thank you,” Derillo said, adding that his family was amazingly supportive throughout this experience:  “My wife of 44 years, Susan, was my ‘nurse’ and caretaker. She never left my side and made sure I was well taken care of.”

Successful Recovery at Jefferson Health

The comprehensive and coordinated care at Jefferson Health allowed Derillo to recover and get back to doing what he loves: golfing. “I joke with Dr. Yeo that the only thing he couldn’t fix was my golf game. But now I’m back to playing golf every week, mowing the lawn, and going on walks every day,” said Derillo. “People ask me how I got so lucky and I tell them that I had angels on my shoulders. Without Dr. Yeo and Dr. Posey, I wouldn’t be alive today.” And he has nothing but praise for the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township team, including the nurse navigators.

In fact, despite the intensity of his treatments, Derillo has no complaints—and is grateful to have made some friends for life with other Jefferson Health cancer patients.

“It’s not an easy road and you have to cheer each other on,” he says.

Derillo is also grateful that access to excellent care at Jefferson Health was available both in Philadelphia and right in South Jersey.

We’re not just for people who live in the city or even in the area. We have patients who come to us from around the world. And now, with telemedicine at the forefront of healthcare, it’s even easier for patients to see us for consultations without leaving their homes. —Dr. Charles Yeo

In addition to accessible world-class treatments, Jefferson Health gives patients the knowledge and guidance they need with their nurse navigators: “The key to multidisciplinary care is really our navigators. If our patients have any questions about their care, their navigator will direct them to the right provider to address that specific issue. They also help with scheduling the many follow-up appointments required for multidisciplinary care,” Dr. Posey explained.

For those who also may be suffering from pancreatic cancer, Joe Derillo has some advice: “It may be a difficult road, but you can get through it. As far as I’m concerned, Jefferson Health is the best team in the world, so if you’re being treated by them, you’re in good hands.”

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