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Megan Shilling — Pancreatic Cancer Story

Megan Shilling

Meet Megan Shilling

One Sunday night in January 2018, Megan Shilling felt a pain in her lower back that she thought seemed familiar.

“It was like when you are driving on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and you really have to go to the bathroom, but there is no exit in site,” Megan recalls.

She took some ibuprofen, put heat on the spot, and hoped it would go away. The then-43-year-old decided to sleep downstairs and awoke the next morning when she heard her husband leave for work. Her condition had gotten worse overnight.

The mother and former dancer describes the pain she felt as “worse than the combination of childbirth and dancing on broken toes.”

“I crawled to my son’s bedroom, asked him to carry me to my bed, and call my parents,” Megan says. “But because it was snowing that day, my husband’s school had a two-hour delay. So, he returned home and saw me in my son’s arms. I told him something was wrong, and we needed to get to a hospital.”

Searching for Answers

Megan’s care team initially thought she might be passing either a kidney or gallstone, which would explain the pain, but her test results had them asking additional questions.

“They told me my enzyme levels were in line with individuals who consume large amounts of alcohol or are morbidly obese,” Megan explains.

She was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis and admitted to the hospital, where she underwent an MRI and CT scan. An hour later, Megan’s doctor informed her that she had a half-centimeter cyst on the head of her pancreas. She would need an endoscopy, a diagnostic test doctors use to collect biopsies from the upper part of the digestive system, to determine whether the cyst was cancerous or not.

“On the day of the endoscopy, I was told a few things might happen,” Megan recalls. “The cyst might be gone, they could drain it, or they might find that there’s nothing they can do.”

Results showed that Megan’s cyst had grown and now measured one centimeter.

The Path to UPMC

In early February, Megan met with Christopher Marsh, MD, a medical oncologist with the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. This was followed by an appointment with Amer Zureikat, MD, Hillman’s chief of surgical oncology.

“That visit was on Valentine’s Day, which I no longer celebrate because I now associate it with this experience,” Megan says with a laugh. “Dr. Zureikat told me he had done his homework and knew that I was a pretty healthy person, but he wanted his team to do some more testing.”

Those tests revealed that the cyst continued to grow, and Megan was presented with two options; she could wait and see what happens or she could schedule a Whipple surgery, which would remove the head of her pancreas.

Megan chose the second option, and Dr. Zureikat performed the robotic Whipple on May 10, 2018. When she followed up with him a week later, the surgeon confirmed she had pancreatic cancer.

“But then he added, ‘I got it all out,’” Megan remembers.

“I Would Not Go Anywhere Else”

In an effort to remove any microscopic cancer cells that could have remained in her body, Megan started chemotherapy sessions in June. She completed her 12th treatment in April 2019, and later that month, Dr. Zureikat informed her that scans were completely clear.

Now a survivor, Megan has been inspired to assist with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s annual PurpleStride fundraising walk, serving as a speaker at Pittsburgh’s event in 2022 before becoming chair in 2023.

“It’s a privilege to have the chance to be the voice for those fighting this deadly disease,” Megan explains. “But most importantly for those who we have lost and those who have yet to be diagnosed.”

And she says she’ll be forever grateful for the care she received at UPMC.

“Everyone was absolutely wonderful. I call them my ‘dream team.’ When you think ‘cancer,’ you think ‘UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.’ I would not go anywhere else.”

Megan’s treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.