Beating the odds, giving hope
Thom Pritz shouldn’t be alive today.
Pritz, an Elmwood Township resident and advertising sales manager for WPBN/WTOM TV 7&4, was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2004.
“Statistically, I was told I couldn’t win,” said Pritz, adding that only 4 to 5 percent of those diagnosed survive a year, only 2 percent live five years. “Somebody has to make up that 2 percent, (and) that was going to be me.”
Pritz will be the featured speaker at the Leelanau County Relay for Life kickoff event next Wednesday at 6 p.m. the Silvertree Deli in Suttons Bay. The meeting will help set the stage for the July 24-25 Relay for Life event in which those who lost their fight to cancer are remembered, and those who are battling the disease are recognized.
In the fall of 2004, the 46-year-old Pritz was suffering from back pain and indigestion. He told his doctor about his discomfort during an annual physical and was prescribed a name-brand acid reducer. Pritz, however, continued to suffer back pain and sought relief through chiropractic medicine. It was through a chiropractor that he learned something was very wrong.
“He told me something was seriously wrong with either my pancreas or gall bladder and suggested I ask to have an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging),” Pritz explained.
Although Pritz said he was met with some resistance, his physician scheduled the test. But Thom couldn’t wait until the appointment.
“I was taking handfuls of Advil because of the pain,” he said, adding that he had to stop all medications for a period before the test. “I couldn’t stop the pain and went to the emergency room.”
The MRI revealed a mass on his pancreas and liver. A biopsy conducted the following day confirmed Thom’s worst fear. The husband and father of two teenage children had pancreatic cancer.
Calling upon the qualities of perseverance and determination which Pritz has drawn upon in the past as a salesman, he sought answers by sending his medical information to the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, the M.D. Anderson Clinic in Houston, the Mayo Clinic, and Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York.
“At U of M, I was told I could be part of a clinical trial and help when I die,” Pritz said. “I figured I could do more alive than dead.”
The diagnosis that forced Pritz to ponder his own mortality was made that much more difficult by the illness and subsequent death of his mother, who was being treated at The Lacks Cancer Center at Saint Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Rapids. There, doctors suggested chemotherapy and radiation treatments to shrink Pritz’ tumor in preparation for surgery that itself had a high mortality rate. Then, while driving home from treatment downstate, a friend called Thom and his wife, Jane, and mentioned the Cancer Treatment Center of America in Chicago.
“The first thing I asked the doctor there was, ‘How long do I have to live?’” the patient recalled. “The doctor said, ‘Who am I to tell you how long you have to live?’”
Beginning in March 2005, Pritz underwent an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that included a 4-hour infusion of cancer-killing drugs for five straight days every three weeks. He also had chemotherapy directed at his pancreas. But the treatment aimed at vanquishing the cancer also brought on life-threatening side effects. He spent May and June of 2005 in intensive care at Munson Medical Center because of a bleeding ulcer, which at one point led hospital staffers to think Pritz wouldn’t make it through the night.
“Every time I threw up, I thought, ‘It’s not the cancer that’s making me puke. It’s the chemo,’ the poison taking care of it,” he said.
By March 2006, the tumor on his pancreas was gone and the spots on his liver were dramatically reduced. Three years and multiple surgeries later, he remains cancer-free as confirmed by scans and lab work taken every six months.
It was the support of friends, family and community that helped Pritz and his wife, and their children Hannah and Thom, get through the illness.
“We hadn’t been in the Traverse City for two years yet, but people (including Suttons Bay teacher Nancy Wick) came out of the woodwork to help,” said Pritz.
Pritz said every day is a gift to him and tries to give back by providing what many pancreatic cancer patients lack: hope.
“I get calls from people all over the country. The other day, I got a call from a man in Italy whose father had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,” he said. “It’s an honor to help them.”