With high-profile deaths in recent years of opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, actor Patrick Swayze and, most recently, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, it's easy for most of us to equate pancreatic cancer with the proverbial death sentence.

The statistics aren't good. According to the National Cancer Institute, the overall five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 5.5 percent. The institute also estimates that this year 44,030 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and 37,660 will die from it.

But a local couple want to tell others facing the disease that there is hope and help, especially in the Lowcountry.

Despair of diagnosis

In October 2009, Wando High School math teacher Joe Kutcher was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, or adenocarcinoma, after showing signs of what they thought was hepatitis.

Joe recalls having feelings of "despair and disbelief" and ran a series of questions through his head.

"How was I going to break the news to our three daughters that their dad had cancer? How was I going to break the news to everyone else? More immediately, what does this mean for me? How long do I have? What can be done?" he said. "All I knew of pancreatic cancer at the time was that Patrick Swayze just died of it."

Before his diagnosis, his wife, Rebecca Kutcher, a language arts teacher at Cario Middle School, admits to being "haunted" by the possibility of one of her loved ones having pancreatic cancer. She had read "The Last Lecture," written by the late Randy Pausch, who died from pancreatic cancer, and news accounts of Swayze's death were fresh in her mind.

"I eventually pushed the thoughts aside thinking how silly I was being to worry about it," she says, but adds that when she saw her husband's

eyes appearing to yellow, she was worried. She Googled it, and when she saw that one possible diagnosis was pancreatic cancer, "My heart stopped."

"While I prayed for the diagnosis to be hepatitis, I knew in my heart that it was pancreatic cancer," she recalls, noting that she thought the family's journey was to raise their eldest daughter, Trista, who has Down syndrome and is a successful athlete in Special Olympics.

"We feel we did a good job raising her," says Rebecca. "I could not understand why we were handed another major life challenge for our family."

Quick action

The Kutchers say their family doctor, Dr. Demetrios Papadopoulos, quickly connected them with Dr. Steve Chin, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the Medical University of South Carolina Hollings Cancer Center. Chin wasted no time and lined up Kutcher's first chemotherapy treatment by early November 2009.

Chin says the problem with pancreatic cancer is its onset is insidious, progressing with few or no symptoms to indicate its gravity, and, therefore, difficult to diagnose in early stages.

"As a result, most patients have locally advanced unresectable or metastatic disease at presentation. Unfortunately, only 10 (percent) to 20 percent of patients at the time of diagnosis are eligible for curative resection. This contributes to an overall five-year survival rate of 5 percent."

In Kutcher's case, Chin says he initially presented with a "locally advanced adenocarcinoma of the pancreas." He was placed on chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy in an attempt to shrink the tumor for surgical resection.

"At MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, patients with locally advanced disease routinely receive upfront chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and about 35 percent of these patients will go on to surgery with curative intent," Chin says, adding that the research hospital has multiple clinical trials open for pancreatic cancer in the form of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, targeted biologic therapy and vaccine therapy.

Weeks after his diagnosis, "by pure luck," Kutcher's sister, Jan Andrejco, who was seeking information on his behalf, attended the PanCan conference in Baltimore and met with Dr. Chris Wolfgang, a pancreatic cancer specialist.

He reviewed Kutcher's case and agreed to perform a Whipple surgery -- a complicated surgery that involves the removal of the gall bladder, the head of the pancreas, the upper portion of the small intestine and about half of the stomach -- at Johns Hopkins. The 12-hour surgery took place June 23, 2010, and went "extremely well."

More chemo, surgery and radiation have followed, and recent CT scans show no spread of the cancer.

Support is key

Kutcher says he feels "truly blessed" to have support, not only at home and local health care, but at work as well.

"If I could have scripted the perfect support network, it would have been exactly what I've experienced these past two years," says Kutcher, adding that he calls wife Rebecca his "General Contractor of Medicine."

"Besides my family, the faculty and staff at Wando High School have been amazing. They somehow magically possess the ability to find the perfect balance between treating me normally and asking questions about my latest health news. They've made me feel very comfortable about a very uncomfortable situation," says Kutcher, adding that Wando Principal Lucy Beckham personifies the "family first" approach.

"She has put me in a position at school where I can still positively contribute to the students and to the school yet still allows me the flexibility to miss a day here or there," says Kutcher. "Some days when I don't feel well, I force myself to come to school because nothing seems to charge me up more than to get in front of a class and teach. It really energizes me."

Joe's takeaway

As a message to others during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Kutcher offers hope to those with the disease, especially as research, albeit "underfunded," offers more hope for survival.

"Every patient is unique. Every tumor is unique, either by biological makeup, its staging or by its physical position on the pancreas," he says. "Don't try to forecast your own future based on the stories that you've heard. The world of pancreatic cancer is changing and changing quickly.

"Today, it doesn't have to be a six-month death sentence like it was in the past. I know of people who are 10-plus year survivors. ... Don't let pancreatic cancer define you. Define it."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.