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Mary Scanlon — Pancreatic Cancer Story

Mary Scanlon

While the last Pittsburgh Steelers game of the season in January 2022 played in the background at home, Mary Scanlon was experiencing prolonged stomach discomfort and sudden vomiting. During half time, Mary walked to the UPMC St. Margaret Emergency Department (ED) – just three blocks away. After an endoscopy and a biopsy, Mary was diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has low survival rates because it can remain undiscovered as early cases often pose no symptoms. Mary’s tumor was an inch in size and blocked her bile duct, which caused the vomiting that sent her to the ED.

As a UPMC employee since 1993, choosing UPMC Hillman Cancer Center was easy for Mary. She met with her UPMC Hillman care team on Jan. 26, 2022, which included Roby Thomas, MD, Alessandro Paniccia, MD, and a nutritionist. In early February, Mary began intensive chemotherapy.

Individualized Chemotherapy Treatment

Mary has been a member of Steel City Dragons, a Pittsburgh dragon boat team, since its formation in 2002. Dragon boating is a water sport where crews of up to 16 people compete in large canoe-like vessels consisting of ornate carved dragon heads and tails.

Mary is so dedicated to her sport, that when she began chemotherapy, Mary requested that her off weeks be lined up with the team’s dragon boating training camp in Florida. Her care team worked with her to compromise on a schedule, and she was able to travel to Florida to be with her teammates.

After three months of intense chemotherapy, Mary’s tumor wasn’t shrinking. Her doctors modified her treatment plan to ensure Mary would tolerate the chemotherapy better without sacrificing too much of the efficacy of it. Her tailored treatment worked effectively to shrink her tumor. Side effects, such as sensitivity to cold, neuropathy, and eyelid fluttering lessened drastically once her regimen was modified. Mary’s final chemotherapy appointment was the last week of July and she underwent a Whipple procedure on Aug. 2, 2022.

Mary’s care team ensured she was involved and informed of her treatment plan. She found comfort in understanding what would be happening during her treatments and procedures. She remembers how helpful Dr. Paniccia’s explanations were.

“He went above and beyond by using a diagram of organs that would be removed and shifted during the Whipple procedure,” Mary says.

After a successful treatment regimen, Mary rang the bell at UPMC Hillman on Dec. 22, 2022, with the Steel City Dragons mascot by her side.

Essential Supportive Care

Holistic care has been beneficial to Mary; she had acupuncture at UPMC with Karen Donoughe to be proactive about lessening neuropathy side effects in her feet. She is grateful she received a wig at no cost from UPMC Hillman Cancer Center to wear to her brother’s wedding.

Mary said she is extremely thankful for her caring family, friends, and dragon boat team throughout her journey.

“Every Sunday, my dragon boat teammates delivered a home cooked meal to my family,” she says. “I’m grateful for the love they showed me.”

Mary leaned on the camaraderie and motivation that dragon boating gave her. She talked a lot with members of Pink Steel – the breast cancer survivor team of Steel City Dragons – and was connected to a pancreatic cancer survivor.  

“In a lot of ways, I was extremely blessed last year, through my care, family, and teammates,” Mary says.


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