As a hang glider, CrossFitter and former collegiate rower, Xan Harwood-Karlik was a relatively healthy 29 year-old man. In May 2014 he began experiencing a strange, intense abdominal pain, which led to an urgent care appointment. The doctor on duty took Xan through every test you could imagine, finally concluding he had pancreatitis. Xan was hospitalized for a day under observation, mostly to rest his digestive system and remain on some IV fluids. After about a week all of his symptoms cleared up and no cause was found. Follow-up ultrasounds were performed, but when no one called with results, Xan thought he was in the clear.
Impressed with the urgent care physicians attentiveness, Xan decided to make her his primary doctor later that summer. When he met her again in October for his first physical, they discussed his full medical history, concerns and lifestyle. At one point the doctor said, “you know, I really don’t like that we never found out what caused that pancreatitis. It’s probably nothing, but I want to get one last CAT scan, just to rule everything out.”
Unfortunately, that was not to be. Xan’s doctor, Dr. Brady, called and said immediate blood work (as in, that day) would be needed and a biopsy scheduled as soon as possible. On November 11th, the worst was confirmed and Xan was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer.
It was only two days later that Xan and his family, including an uncle who’s also a cancer surgeon, met with a surgeon. They were told the next few days would be their only window of opportunity for surgery and that success was by no means certain. The procedure would be complicated as Xan’s tumor sat next to some major blood vessels. If the surgeon couldn’t resect the tumor, the procedure would be abandoned and Xan would immediately begin palliative chemotherapy.
“That evening, my uncle, as well as my primary care doctor, both advocated for 2nd opinions at OHSU. With some quick phone work and amazing advocacy by Dr. Brady, I was in a surgeon’s office the next morning,” Xan recalls. This surgeon recommended to first shrink the tumor with chemotherapy, then would have no issue operating. He also referred Xan to an oncologist who was running a clinical trial for an experimental immunotherapy, for which he was a candidate.
For Xan, the following five months consisted of dozens, if not over 100, immunotherapy injections, four rounds of the most aggressive chemotherapy on the market, and 28 days of targeted radiation therapy. Through it all, he only missed four workouts of his 5-days/week CrossFit routine, and three days of work. In February, a followup scan showed the tumor had shrunk dramatically, and surgery would be, in the surgeon’s words, “not an issue.”
“I owe my life to a dedicated primary care doctor who followed a hunch, and found a demon growing inside me. I owe my well-being to my doctors, my family and friends, and my Crossfit 503 gym. They have been the most steadfast supporters through this battle, I would not have tolerated such rigorous treatment, as well as I have, without having that gym.”
Xan routinely surprised his doctors with his strength, how little fatigue he experienced, and his ability to still complete WOD’s, even the day after chemo. It was no easy road, but Xan knows he is stronger for it.