Pancreatic cancer patient, 40, says, “Today we cry; tomorrow we fight”

They first thought he had gallstones, but further testing showed Chad Handley had pancreatic cancer. He turned to IU Health Simon Cancer Center for his care.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

He was sitting in a corner infusion pod, surrounded by his aunt and uncle, Bobbi and Eric Princell and his childhood best friend Jason Lakes from his hometown of Brookville.

Chad Handley stood up to greet some visiting Colts players shook hands and remained standing for photos. The smile never left his face.

If it wasn’t for the fact that he was connected to a pump in the IU Health Simon Cancer Center, his visitors may have second-guessed his diagnosis.

It started with chest pain in June.

“I thought it was anxiety with my busy work schedule,” said Handley, 40, who received a landscape architectural degree from Ball State University and has worked in real estate most of his life. After a week of pain, he visited his family doctor who thought he might be having gallstones. But blood work raised concerns about his liver and kidney numbers and he was rushed to an ER near his Fishers home.

An MRI followed and showed a mass on the head of his pancreas that was causing a blockage in his bile duct and enlarging his gall bladder. He was admitted to another hospital and underwent surgery to drain and alleviate the pressure from the blockage.

He met his wife Jen at Ball State and together they have two children Quinn, 11, and Darby, 9. On the same day Darby celebrated her ninth birthday Handley was in the hospital. The next day he was told he has pancreatic cancer. “My kids are my world. They fully understand and accept what their Superman is going through, and they are my biggest driver in tackling this disease,” said Handley.

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month – a time to make people aware of the disease and when to seek medical advice. Pancreatic cancer is often called the “silent killer” because there are so few symptoms that can serve as warning signs. Because it can be detected late, it can spread quickly. It is a disease where malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the pancreas – the gland behind the stomach and in front of the spine.

The American Cancer Society estimates about 56,770 people (29,940 men and 26,830 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. About 45,750 people (23,800 men and 21,950 women) will die of pancreatic cancer. The disease accounts for about three percent of all cancers in the United States and about seven percent of all cancer deaths.

For Handley – who was given two to five years to live – the day he was diagnosed was the day he decided he would not become a statistic.

“That day my world changed for ever. That day I told my wife, my mom and my sister I was not going to lose to this disease. I specially told my sister, ‘today we cry and it’s okay, but tomorrow we fight.’ And that’s what we’ve all done,” said Handley.

He and his wife credit their family and a strong support group of friends with helping them through that fight. It was one friend who pushed Handley to get a second opinion on treatment options. Specifically, the friend suggested he reach out to Dr. Max Schmidt with IU Health Simon Cancer Center. Handley was already scheduled for surgery at another hospital when he emailed Dr. Schmidt.

“The next day he called me on his lunch break and said he would call me that night. It was shocking to talk to him on his cell. My wife and I felt very comfortable with him,” said Handley. “Dr. Schmidt was direct in telling me my life expectancy was two to five years but he also told me I could beat it and that was all I needed to hear.”

On July 1, Handley underwent a Pancreaticoduodenectomy (commonly called a “Whipple procedure”) – surgery to remove the head of the pancreas, gallbladder, bile duct and portion of small intestine.

“On July 1 I believe my miracle happened,” said Handley. During the operation Dr. Schmidt was able to remove the tumor and all the margins.

“I remember waking up with my wife, who is my rock, my mother and my sister staring at me. Dr. Schmidt came in and assured me everything went well. He never left my side the entire recovery. It’s amazing how approachable he is. How you can text, call, whatever you need and he answers anytime and anywhere,” said Handley. After surgery he began seeing oncologist Dr. Patrick Loehrer and began chemotherapy on August 12. “Again I asked if I could win and the answer we ‘yes, 100 percent,’” said Handley.

Since June, Handley is down 40 pounds and has the following advice about men’s health:

“If you’re out of shape, get in shape. Watch the beer consumption, and get all the physicals you can. I am in the best shape of my life. I run three miles a day, three days a week, I bike with my kids, I coach, and I eat as healthy as I can. My real estate company has hit new heights. And all my relationships, from my wife, to my family, to my hometown and college friends and current neighbors and my coworkers and business partners are at an all time high and strength. That says a lot about the care I received,” said Handley. “I am going to be the 40-year-old that crushes pancreatic cancer and I owe it all to IU Health. I know I could lose, but there is not a day that I believe that to be the case.”