“Team Scott” Supports Dean’s Fight
He thought hearing the words, “You have diabetes,” would be the scariest words he would ever hear, not knowing that just eight months later, he’d hear three even scarier words. “You have cancer.”
Dr. Scott Swigart, Dean of the Wegmans School of Pharmacy, couldn’t believe when he heard that his fasting blood glucose level was 270 (110-125 is considered prediabetes), because his lifestyle included a low-carb diet, and glucose comes from carbohydrates in food. But, he had a genetic link to the disease, as his mother was a type 2 diabetic.
“I was absolutely shocked that someone on a low-carb diet can have a blood glucose level as high as mine. It really perplexed me,” he said. “Unfortunately, you can’t beat genetics.”
So, he listened to his doctor and put on his pharmacist hat, and immediately started drug therapy, which included two commonly used drugs. His daughter, Kimberly, a 2011 graduate of the School of Pharmacy and practicing pharmacist in Seattle, Washington, convinced him to start another treatment—losing weight. He started to exercise and eat even fewer carbs. In a short period of time, he lost about 20 pounds, and he was managing his new burden.
But then another burden set in, in the form of back pain. He couldn’t sleep at night and was taking ibuprofen every four hours. At first, Swigart says it would come and go, and it stayed in his lower left back. When the pain became consistent, unbearable, and took over his entire back last May, he went to the doctor.
They did a CT scan, which did show inflamed lymph nodes, but also showed a normal size pancreas, so that ruled out pancreatitis.
He finally ended up in the emergency room at Strong Memorial Hospital with the pain, where doctors did an ultrasound and a repeat CT scan. The scan showed a gall stone, but his gall bladder wall was in perfect shape, so it wasn’t his gall bladder. They took a closer look, and it was then that he heard the devastating news.
“There’s a mass on your pancreas.”
Being a health care professional, Swigart knew what that probably meant. But, the next step was a biopsy to see if it was in fact cancer. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with locally advanced adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, the most common and aggressive pancreatic cancer. The good news was that the rest of his body was cancer free. But, because of how advanced his cancer was and the fact that major vessels were involved, the bad news was that surgery was not an option.
“This kind of cancer doesn’t have a good track record. It’s not a good cancer to have, but the goal is to get to surgery,” he said.
Starting in July, he entered into an intense nine-week chemotherapy treatment, receiving chemo at the University of Rochester’s Wilmot Cancer Center every other Wednesday. The goal of the treatment was to shrink the tumor, in an effort to bring the possibility of surgery closer in sight.
After that course of treatment, he went for another CT scan. The news he received was not what he wanted to hear, but did offer some hope. The tumor shrunk a small amount, but not enough for surgery.
“My oncologist was ecstatic because it hadn’t metastasized, but I was depressed,” said Swigart.
In the middle of starting a second course of treatment, Swigart traveled to Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital to get a second opinion. There, he met with a team of specialists, including a pancreatic oncologist, medical oncologist, radiologist, and pancreatic surgeon. They told him that, with some more treatment and a couple of other stumbling blocks he’d have to leap over, they are confident they can do the surgery.
He will continue his current treatment course, more CT scans, and an intense 5½ week regimen of chemotherapy and radiation before he is able to get the green light to surgery. But, he remains optimistic.
“I have hope in my horizon. I’m a happy man, I have a plan,” said Swigart, with a smile. “I was dealt a crappy hand, but I have to play it, and I think I’m playing it okay.”
His doctor is confident that, because Swigart has physically handled the treatments as well as he has, he will beat the typical track record. Swigart also said he has confidence in the recent research on pancreatic cancer, and thinks it will work to his benefit.
Through it all, he has received copious amounts of support, which he believes has been a huge part of his treatment. The faculty and staff at the School of Pharmacy started the “Team Scott” campaign, which has multiplied across campus, spreading a “ra-ra” spirit in the form of pins. Pharmacy students ordered purple bracelets that read, “Team Swigart,” in honor of pancreatic cancer awareness, selling 400 as a fundraiser. Faculty and staff organized a bake sale, with proceeds going to pancreatic cancer research. They also all wore purple on November 1 in support of National Pancreatic Cancer Month. Faculty from the Wegmans School of Nursing have sent him ice cream and the makings for milkshakes every week, complete with whey powder to help him gain weight, since he has completely lost his appetite. And Dar, who works for Lackmann, sneaks him some homemade soup, which she used to make for her mother while she was receiving chemotherapy treatments.
Faculty, staff, and students - with Swigart in the forefront - wore purple for National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month on November 1.
Many people on campus have even been recorded on video sharing knock-knock jokes or just well wishes with Swigart—videos he watches while receiving his treatments. Most recently, a group from the School of Pharmacy walked in the Step it up to Cure Pancreatic Cancer 5k Walk to benefit the Pancreatic Cancer Association of WNY. Swigart was walking, too, front and center.
“I have been so humbled by everyone’s support, you just can’t imagine. The love and support from the Fisher community has been incredible. I can’t say enough about everyone,” he said.
Alumni from across the country have also shown their support by wearing “Team Swigart” pins at their workplace. At his first day of infusion therapy, he recalled how scared he was, sitting to wait for his treatment. After having blood work done, the oncology pharmacist, who was a 2010 graduate of the School of Pharmacy, came to the center to give Swigart a hug and prayers.
Swigart also has to have one drug administered over a 46-hour period, so he has a home health care company who comes to disconnect his port and tubing when the treatment is done. As it turned out, the pharmacist with the home health care company was a 2013 graduate, and also sent his prayers and thoughts along with the nurse that day.
But perhaps his best moment during treatment was when he heard from a child whom he worked with in the 1980s while he was a professor at the University of Nebraska and one of the co-founders and volunteers of a camp for children with cancer. While he was receiving chemo, he got a Facebook request from a camper whose life he touched then, saying she had been looking for him to let him know how much he meant to her and the other campers.
He said hundreds of people have contacted him with well wishes, and he has been added to at least 100 prayer chains at a variety of churches. He credits his wife, family, and church family for giving him the abundance of support and his extra fight.
“Everybody I know has reached out to me, and it’s so humbling to feel the love and support I have felt,” he said. “You have to fight, you can’t give up. When you have that many people praying for you, something has to come from it. I believe that.”
Swigart also said he talks a lot about the Fisher family to people, because it’s a real thing.
“We are more than colleagues here. We are a family. There is no place I can go on this campus without finding love,” he said.
Having only missed one day of work since his diagnosis, his colleagues say, well, that’s just the way he is.
“Anyone who knows Scott has heard him tell you he is ‘fantastic.’ Well, even in the face of this health challenge, he has continued to be upbeat and positive. Just his presence here in the building has been a daily reminder of what perseverance looks like,” said Dr. Jennifer Mathews. “Scott finds the bright side to everything and has reassured and comforted all of us. I know it has helped Scott immensely to feel the love and support from the Fisher community.”
Pam Carzo, Swigart’s assistant, said he has never shown his staff if he was having a down day and sometimes even seems more concerned with how they have been affected by it.
“He shares with us sometimes that it might not be the prognosis he wanted, but he always says it with a smile on his face. Of course, we are all very concerned and very heartbroken about it, but we get strength from his positive example,” said Carzo. “It is very heartwarming to see the way the whole campus is responding to him, it is overwhelming. You can see by the “Team Scott” pins and bracelets that, once again, Scott has brought us all together!”
Alumni have been wearing the "Team Scott" pins and purple bracelets in their workplace.