Andy Lyons

A central Iowa man admits he’s a “rare bird” as he beat the long odds and was recently declared a pancreatic cancer survivor.

On this World Pancreatic Cancer Day, 70-year-old Andy Lyons of Johnston is talking about his story, how this disease has impacted the last two decades of his life, and how it virtually chopped down his family tree.

Lyons lost at least seven close relatives across three generations to what he calls “the killer on the loose.” “Everyone of my immediate family has died from pancreatic cancer, starting with my grandmother, at least two of her sisters, then my mother, and then her twin sister, and their brother, and finally my brother,” Lyons says. “And it didn’t really click until my brother died, that I thought, ‘You know what? It’s coming to me. I need to stop this.'”

Twenty-three years ago, Lyons enrolled in a familial pancreatic cancer study and he’s gone through extensive testing every year since. After 22 years of negative tests, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October of 2021. “In my case, the tumor was just starting and I got hooked up with a surgeon two days after I was diagnosed and they planned surgery for 10 days later,” Lyons says. “They surgically removed the tumor and then I came to Des Moines and started 12 rounds of chemo, just to make sure.”

Last month, Lyons was declared cancer-free, but he plans to continue to be tested every year. This type of cancer is so deadly because its symptoms are often vague and can be mistaken for something else. That includes things like abdominal pain and back pain, changes in stool, yellowing skin, weight loss, appetite loss, and a feeling of being full after only eating a little food.

“It just sneaks in just does its damage until any symptoms show up and by the time they do, it’s possibly too late and more than likely, it is,” Lyons says. “Pancreatic cancer now has a five-year survival rate of like 11-percent, which is increased from where it was, but it’s still not very good.” By comparison, the five-year breast cancer survival rate is 95 percent.

On this World Pancreatic Cancer Day, Lyons has a message for Iowans. “Please, people if you have any history of pancreatic cancer in your family, get checked out,” Lyons says. “The most important thing, early detection is a lifesaver, and I know that because it saved my life. If you have questions, the Pancreatic Cancer Network, PanCan, they have all the answers on the website.”

Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. It’s estimated 600 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Iowa this year and more than 500 of them will die from it.

Radio Iowa