Michael Covey and doctors

"You have cancer." Michael Covey got the news soon after the trip of a lifetime and started a new journey that thankfully continues today.

In 2016, as Michael and his wife, Susan, were looking forward to retirement, they toured British Columbia, soared in the Alps and even got in a round of golf at St. Andrews. The trip to Europe was part of a three-week trip with church friends following Martin Luther’s travels.

Soon after returning home, Michael felt some numbness in his foot. An MRI showed no major damage but did reveal some enlarged lymph nodes in his stomach and chest. A CT scan and biopsy confirmed doctors’ fears—stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It’s not the gift you want to receive as Christmas nears, but that’s what Michael and Susan got on Dec. 23, 2016.

Most patients with stage 4 pancreatic cancer are given nine months to a year to live. “The disease is not curable, but it is treatable. Due to the nature of the multiple masses, chemotherapy is the only viable treatment,” wrote Michael in one of his first entries in a CaringBridge personal health journey that he started on Jan. 6, 2017. He explained that he would be participating in a trial of a new drug the doctors hoped would be more effective in penetrating the cancer cells.

Most patients with stage 4 pancreatic cancer are given nine months to a year to live. “The disease is not curable, but it is treatable. Due to the nature of the multiple masses, chemotherapy is the only viable treatment,” wrote Michael in one of his first entries in a CaringBridge personal health journey that he started on Jan. 6, 2017. He explained that he would be participating in a trial of a new drug the doctors hoped would be more effective in penetrating the cancer cells.

Clinical Research at the Providence Regional Cancer System


There are hundreds of cancer research trials being conducted at any one time in an effort to help improve the care of—and potentially cure—different forms of cancer. When Providence cancer patients initially meet with their physicians, the doctors reach out to clinical research nurses such as Meley Pine.

“We work with the patient and physician to see if there is a trial that might be beneficial to the patient,” Meley said. “They are totally voluntary, and the patient can quit at any time.”

Michael enrolled in a research trial for a new drug that might better penetrate the walls of pancreatic cancer cells. Patients were randomized to either receive the “new” drug or the standard chemotherapy regimen used to treat pancreatic cancer. The regimen for pancreatic cancer is actually the same one used to treat colon cancer. There is no treatment specifically formulated for pancreatic cancer. Michael was randomized to the “standard care” branch of the trial.

Providence is part of the Pacific Clinical Research Consortium (which includes oncology clinics throughout the Pacific Northwest), as well as other industry-sponsored clinical trials. In Southwest Washington, about 60 patients have chosen to be part of clinical trials in the past few years.

“These trials are pivotal for improving patient care and quality of life,” says Deidre Dillon, RN, research program manager for Providence in Southwest Washington. “We are so fortunate to have dedicated nurses, physicians and patients passionate about helping determine the future of medicine.”

Michael joined a trial that included 126 patients. Every two weeks after his chemo regimen, he meets with his physician and nurse to talk about reactions to the drug and enter data.

“He is such an inspiration,” says his physician Dr. Xingwei Sui, a physician-champion of clinical trials. “We are privileged to be able to offer clinical trials to our patients, like Michael, in Southwest Washington. He is a blessing every time he comes in.”

Each time a patient in a trial meets with a research nurse is a “cycle.” Most in a clinical trial go through a handful of cycles. Some reach double digits or maybe even 25 cycles. Michael is the only patient remaining in his trial.

“When Michael reached cycle 100 of the trial, he basically broke the system. We had to figure out how to enter the data, because the system didn’t recognize three digits,” Meley said. “No one had ever gone that far in a trial.”

Michael had his first chemo treatment on Jan. 10, 2017. More than four years later he and Susan have used CaringBridge as a way to tell their story, offer hope and keep loved ones up to date on their progress.

“I firmly believe that what I need most is prayers for effective treatment with as few side effects as possible,” Michael wrote. “What I am most positive is that I have the absolute BEST life partner alongside me on this journey and that I have the best of the best for a medical team working hard to beat this thing.”

Two weeks later he wrote:

“Each cycle consists of being at the clinic for 7-8 hours for lab work to be drawn, seeing Dr. Lechner, meeting with the research nurses and then approx. 6 hours in the chemo chair; accessing my Mediport, infusing the pre-meds/hydration and his chemo drugs (Irinotecan/CPT-11, 5-fluorouracil/ 5-FU and Oxaliplation) after which he is hooked up to his fanny pack that will continue to drip 5FU into his veins over the next 46 hours.”

Susan—who Michael calls “his rock” and “the person I couldn’t do this without”—has made entries as well, even helping describe the role of caregiver.

“Michael and I are taking this journey together one step at a time,” Susan wrote. “We are praying for miracles and God has already blessed us with many. God is good, all the time God is good.”

Among the blessings: Michael has experienced very few side effects from any of his treatments. His CT scans show continual tumor shrinkage—currently at 80 percent reduction. His CA 19-9, a specific blood indicator for pancreatic cancer, has remained in the normal to near-normal range for almost two years.

There is some exciting news in pancreatic cancer research. When Michael was first diagnosed in 2016 the five-year survival rate was less than five percent. Today, a patient's five-year life expectancy has risen to 10 percent. This is a result of information gained by patients volunteering to participate in research trials.

“I can’t emphasize enough my admiration, complete trust and sense of assurance I have with Providence and the team there,” Michael says, “along with my deep appreciation for all the very effective prayer support from my family and our church family—Lacey Presbyterian Church. They are true prayer warriors.”


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