Jay E. Sandler is thankful and ready to celebrate his 70th birthday in a few weeks.
“I’m a pancreatic cancer survivor,” said the Chatsworth resident with pride in his voice.
Since overcoming a dreadful diagnosis nine years ago, Sandler has celebrated dozens of his grandchildren’s birthdays, a couple of bar mitzvahs, the birth of a great-grandson and the weddings of other loved ones.
Sandler’s inspiring story of recovery and resilience is one of many often heard at the Pancreatic Cancer Support Group at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. The group is the only one of its kind in the Valley, and one of just five in California for patients and survivors of what medical professionals say is the third deadliest cancer in the nation.
It meets the third Thursday of every month and invites oncology and other experts to help members navigate what could be one of the most difficult and defining experiences of their lives. Loved ones of patients and survivors can also attend the meetings.
Since the pandemic, gatherings are virtual on the video-conferencing platform Zoom.
The group was formed more than three years ago by Dr. Babak “Bobby” Eghbalieh when the pancreatic and robotics surgeon arrived at the local hospital. It’s one of several oncology services offered by the medical center that has earned it the designation of a Center of Excellence for Pancreatic Cancer by the National Pancreas Foundation.
“We started small, with maybe three to five members. But now we have up to 20 people at our meetings,” says nurse Vivian Gonzalez, who co-facilitates the meetings and who has been with the group since its inception.
The group is not limited to Providence Holy Cross patients and hospital neighbors in Mission Hills and nearby communities. “Our support group is open to all,” Eghbalieh said. “When it was in-person, anyone from the Valley could attend. But we actually used to get folks from East LA, West Los Angeles, the North San Fernando Valley and from the Antelope Valley.”
Meeting via Zoom has enabled people to join the group from Georgia, the state of Washington, and San Francisco. “We even have had a person from Mexico joining in,” Gonzalez said.
“The beautiful thing is that we have been able to expand it to other folks who are not local,” says Eghbalieh. “It is just so heartwarming listening to everyone’s stories, you know, seeing how they learn from each other, how they support each other.”
The meetings are in English but that hasn’t deterred Spanish-speakers from joining. “I had a Latino patient and his daughter would come and translate for him,” Gonzalez recalled. “I think they found it very beneficial.”
While the oncology experts and other guest speakers offer valuable information, those who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can provide their first hand experience that could help fellow support group members.
“Patients share where they’re at in the process of their pancreatic cancer journey,” Gonzalez said. “They talk about their personal experiences and discuss and learn from one another, how to cope, how to treat various side effects from different therapies like chemotherapy and radiation.”
John Harrison Hood said he learned he had stage-four pancreatic cancer on Valentine’s Day of 2019, and that he was not eligible for surgery.
“No one can tell me how long I’m going to live,” said Hood, 65, a Chatsworth resident. He joined the support group a few months after his diagnosis and has shared his experience of 69 treatments of chemotherapy, developing some allergies to medical cocktails and tips about keeping food down while in treatment.
“I’m doing good,” said Hood, who is still working as a maintenance manager for Sugar Foods Corporation. “I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home on my computer and the phone,” adding he’s been with his employer for 31 years.
“They’re working with me the best they can. I have no complaints. Working helps me keep normalcy and keep my mind off cancer, about when I’m going to die,” Hood said
He said the support group is a source of strength.
“I really appreciate it. It’s like another family. They give me the strength in my daily fight to beat this disease. I thank Vivian (Gonzalez) for also giving me support.”
Judy Richard has been a support group member for more than three years. She joined a few months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April of 2018.
The 73-year-old Santa Clarita resident credits Eghbalieh with saving her life in the operating room.
“He’s an amazing man,” she said of the surgeon. “He is so caring with his patients, treating them as human beings, not just patients. He shows compassion and care, he wants you to be OK.”
The group formed by Eghbalieh “is a “blessing for pancreatic patients,” Richard said. “Everybody is so informative and we learn that everybody’s case is different. We give tips to each other — ‘read this book, try this recipe’ — and we learn about new prescription drugs we hadn’t heard about.”
Every year the Providence Holy Cross’s support group participates in an annual national walk for cancer awareness organized by Pancreatic Cancer Network. Richard proudly recalled her last in-person walk, held at the Los Angeles Zoo, before the COVID pandemic.
Richard said she was joined by a large group of loved ones, including her son, daughter-in-law, a grandson, a great-granddaughter and close friends.
“The most important thing in the fight against cancer is to have a positive attitude about life and what’s going on with you, the fact that you have cancer, and that you will be OK,” she said. “I’m fine and I’ll be fine.”
For more information about the support group, call (818) 639-5421.