Know Your Madisonian: Survivor works to fight pancreatic cancer

August 3, 2018

Tammy Andries, a pancreatic cancer survivor, is active with the Madison affiliate of the national Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer, but Andries had a variety that is less often fatal.

Andries, 52, lives in Waunakee with her husband, Brandon. Their son Jacob, 21, attends Arizona State University. Sophia, 19, will be at UW-Madison this fall. Claire, 17, will be a senior at Waunakee High School.

Andries’ father has Alzheimer’s disease, which has led the family to start raising money for that cause, too.

When and how did you learn you had pancreatic cancer?

It was August 2005. It was by accident, which is how most people find out. We were moving back to Wisconsin from Minnesota. I had back pain, but I thought it was associated with moving. We stayed at our cabin, near Eau Claire. In the middle of the night, I woke up in excruciating pain. We went to the local emergency room. They said I had kidney stones and gave me pain medication.

Back in Waunakee, the pain came back. I went to the emergency room here. They did a CT scan and saw an 8-centimeter mass, the size of a grapefruit, on the head of the pancreas. After a biopsy a week later, they said I had cancer. I had a slow-growing type of tumor, which they said I probably had for four to six years.

What kind of treatment did you get?

They told me the only thing I could have, for my type of pancreatic cancer, was surgery. Most people get the aggressive, fast-growing kind. Mine was similar to what Steve Jobs, from Apple computers, had. People can still die from it, but it has a better survival rate.

The surgery I had, at UW, is the Whipple procedure, an eight-hour surgery. They take out part of your stomach and intestine, and your pancreas and gall bladder. I lost about 40 pounds within the first month and didn’t gain it back until two years afterwards. Two months later, I walked my kids around the block, and it was exhausting. It was a full year before I felt back to normal.

What activities have you done through the Madison affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network?

We started the Madison affiliate in 2007. I was the event coordinator, and we started Jazz for Hope, a fundraiser. A lot of jazz musicians have died from pancreatic cancer. We did that for four years and raised about $400,000. Then we started focusing on Purple Stride, our 5K run-walk, which is still going on. Overall, we’ve helped raise over $2 million to fight pancreatic cancer.

I’ve gone to Washington, D.C., three or four times to lobby for research funding — and, as things got tighter and tighter, to not cut funding. Today I’m sponsorship chair and spokesperson. It’s all volunteer.

Why is it important to speak up about pancreatic cancer?

Most people don’t live long enough to do the advocating. With breast cancer, you have a ton of people who can go out and talk about it. With pancreatic cancer, they usually die quickly. Typically, they live three to six months. I’m lucky that I’m still here, 13 years later, and can talk about it.

How is your health today?

I feel like I’m healthy, but before I was told I had cancer I felt like I was healthy. I’m anemic, because I don’t absorb nutrients as well as I did before the surgery. When I feel tired, I take iron. I should be taking it all the time. But with anything you take, there are side effects.

When I hit 10 years, my oncologist kind of gave me a clean bill of health, and I haven’t gone back. They still follow my blood work.

Other than Steve Jobs, who are some well-known people who have had or died from pancreatic cancer?

Count Basie (jazz musician). Fred Gwynne, the actor who played Herman Munster. Paul Mitchell, the hair care guy. Michael Landon (actor). Some of Jimmy Carter’s family members. Randy Pausch (wrote a book and gave a talk called “The Last Lecture”). Patrick Swayze (actor). The guy who played Professor Snape (in “Harry Potter” movies, Alan Rickman). Ruth Bader Ginsburg (U.S. Supreme Court justice).

— Interview by

David Wahlberg