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Early diagnosis, advanced treatment can be life saving

​​Chris Kahl, of Prairie Farm, knows he's alive today because of an early cancer diagnosis, knowledgeable experts overseeing his care and advanced therapies keeping his cancer at bay. It's cases such as this when advanced technology and new therapies developed from research can shine.

Kahl, 42, was diagnosed in July 2012 with pancreatic cancer. Despite undergoing an intense chemotherapy treatment, Kahl has never skipped a beat.

"When you get dealt something like this, the first thing you do is decide you're going to beat it," Kahl said. "You always have to keep that in the back of your head. I'm doing pretty well."

Kahl, his wife Bridgette, and their two young daughters, live in a quintessential farm setting on the same property his grandparents farmed. He and his brother run a 140-cow dairy and crop farm that has been in the family for generations.

"I wasn't that sick when I went to the doctor," Kahl said. A bad stomachache sent him for care in April 2012.

"I continued to not feel well," he said. "A follow-up visit in July turned up a cancerous tumor in the pancreas. I had a biopsy that confirmed it had already gone to the liver, and two additioal opinions confirmed surgery couldn't be done."

Pancreatic cancer is the 12th most common cancer worldwide, said Michael Husak, M.D.​, Kahl's oncologist/hematologist at Marshfield Clinic Rice Lake Center. "People are more familiar with it because some high profile people have had this type of cancer. It tends to be more of a sporadic cancer."

Kahl promptly began a chemotherapy regimen, which included treatment every two weeks, and finished in April. Side effects included severe nausea, tingling and numbness (neuropathy) in his feet and hands, and fatigue.

"I always had one bad week and one good week," Kahl said. "By day six or so, my body would do a turnaround." He kept up with the farm chores throughout.

Because they couldn't do surgery, Kahl's doctors had to look for other treatment approaches. A multidisciplinary medical team at Marshfield Clinic provides expert opinions for his treatment and care.

"Chris responded very well to FOLFIRNOX, a newer cancer treatment he was on for almost a year," Dr. Husak said. FOLFIRNOX is a combination of chemotherapy drugs each formulated to kill cancer cells in different ways. "He did so well, the chemotherapy was followed by radiation oncology treatments to provide more localized therapy."

Kahl also is undergoing genetic testing.

Two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, if found with testing to have a genetic mutation, indicate a significantly higher risk for pancreatic cancer. Both are genes we all have and mutations are rare.

"Genetic test results may provide information to guide next steps," Dr. Husak said. "With new drugs and the addition of radiation, our goal is to manage the cancer or downsize it to be more amenable with surgery. Chris also has the benefit of being young, active and healthy."

Bridgette Kahl said her husband has learned to slow down and prioritize, and he's more apt to take off for an afternoon or a day.

"Having cancer changes you," said Kahl. "I plan to keep my head up and keep going."