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Brian Shanahan — Pancreatic Cancer Story

Brian Shanahan

When business executive Brian Shanahan began having digestive symptoms in the summer of 2020, he suspected acid reflux, or maybe gallbladder trouble. Although he was already active and generally healthy, he decided to start following a vegan diet and add even more fitness into his daily routine. But when his symptoms persisted, Brian’s brother, a physician, recommended that he undergo tests to find out the cause. That August, Brian learned he had pancreatic cancer.

Unfortunately, the Shanahan family was all too familiar with this diagnosis. Brian’s dad, James F. Shanahan, Sr., had undergone successful treatment for a type of pancreatic cancer called ampullary cancer at UPMC in 2014. His dad’s doctor had since relocated outside of Pittsburgh, but Brian reached out for guidance.

“I asked him – if this were you, who would you see? And he told me: Dr. Amer Zureikat,” Brian says.

Amer H. Zureikat, MD, is the Bernard F. Fisher Chair in Surgery, chief of Surgical Oncology at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and an expert in pancreatic cancer and robotic surgery. He explained that Brian’s tumor wasn’t just in his pancreas – it also rested on a nearby artery and vein. This meant that surgery could be risky, and Dr. Zureikat might not be able to remove the entire mass.

But there was some good news: Brian’s tumor had a genetic mutation, known as BRCA, which made it susceptible to platinum-containing chemotherapy for a better response. Under the care of UPMC Hillman medical oncologist Vincent E. Reyes, Jr., MD. Brian started on this personalized chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. Guided by frequent radiologic and tumor marker revaluations, both Drs. Reyes and Zureikat worked together to deliver the optimal amount of therapy. In total, Brian received 19 rounds of intensive chemotherapy at UPMC Hillman’s location at St. Clair Health, close to his home in the South Hills, with Dr. Reyes and his team.

By March of 2021, Brian’s tumor had shrunk by 65% and he underwent an extensive, 10-hour surgery with Dr. Zureikat and his team at UPMC Presbyterian. The surgery is known as the Whipple procedure, which removes the cancerous part of the pancreas, the duodenum (first part of the small intestine), gallbladder, bile duct, and the distal (lower) portion of the stomach. After a short stay in the hospital, Brian returned home and underwent another two and a half months of chemotherapy.

“I couldn’t have made it through all of this without my family or my faith,” Brian says. His wife Karen, whose own brother died of pancreatic cancer, and parents James and Antoinetti were by his side at every step of the way. He also relied on his deep faith in God, a core aspect of Brian’s life, throughout his experience.

Today, Brian is on therapy that specifically targets the genetic mutation in his tumor, which prevents cancer cells from growing. His latest scans show no evidence of cancer, and he’ll remain on the targeted therapy to lower his risk of a recurrence.

Brian is back to running several businesses, enjoying time with his family, and walking about seven miles a day. In gratitude for the excellent care he received, Brian recently became a major donor to UPMC Hillman and the Pancreatic Cancer Program, and he hopes to help raise even more funds in the future.

“I’ve been fortunate in my life, and I’ve always liked giving,” says Brian. “I want to give back to those who have helped me, and who are helping so many others.”

Learn about how you can support UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

Brian's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.