Five-year-old Jacob Zimbelmann started kindergarten at Kyrene de los Cerritos last week, and like many other children, was accompanied into his classroom by his parents, Steve and Nancy Zimbelmann.
It was an especially piognant moment for the family: Jacob’s father had left the Banner Gateway Intensive Care Unit the day before specifically to accompany his son.
An Army veteran with 11 years of service, Steve Zimbelmann is in the battle of his life as a pancreatic cancer stubbornly resists three years of treatment.
The family lived in Portland, Oregon when the pancreatic tumor was initially found, and thought his regimen of chemo, radiation and even surgery to remove the tumor had been successful.
Buoyed, they moved to Ahwatukee in March 2018 to enjoy sunnier climes and start anew, putting the worst behind them.
Steve was. and still is, employed with PAC Worldwide, and Nancy, a registered nurse, worked throughout the Valley as a home health care nurse.
“We made the move to Phoenix to get out of Portland’s cloudy, rainy, depressing weather. We really thought Steve was in remission,” she said. “We chose Ahwatukee because of the schools, the beauty of the mountains and terrain, and because we’d heard from everyone it was a great place to raise a family.”
Shortly before Christmas, their world came apart again.
“We were nervous, but tried not to overreact because he was feeling great,” recalled Nancy. “A PET scan found a small tumor in his abdomen below the Whipple surgery site.”
They couple went to a new oncologist at Banner MD Anderson in Gilbert, where “the plan was to start chemo at the end of December” and “he stayed on that treatment for months,” Nancy said.
Scans showed the tumor was shrinking and so Dr. Tomislav Dragovich planned to go in around June and surgically remove the tumor “and that would be it,” she said.
“In June, when they did a CT scan, they found the third tumor. This tumor was located in the same exact spot of the original tumor and is wrapped around the portal vein,” she said. “Once we discovered this, surgery was no longer an option. He was put on a chemo drug to try to ‘keep this tumor at bay’ to extend his life,”
With very few chemo drugs available to treat pancreatic cancer, she continued, “they started the first chemo in 2016 with the strongest drugs. So, once he takes a chemo drug and it doesn’t wipe out the cancer, they just go down the line of drugs from strongest to weakest.”
“We were told there was nothing that could be done at this point,” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “We found out from Saturday’s (July 27) CT scan that the tumor on the pancreas site has doubled in size, so the drug they were using isn’t working.”
The family is now hoping to enroll in new DNA clinical trials at Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Tanios Bekaii-Saab at Mayo reviewed Steve’s case and agreed with Dragovich’s diagnosis.
“They only thing different is that Mayo has multiple clinical trials for pancreatic cancer and his new doctor is trying to get Steve in one of those,” Nancy said.
A medical oncologist with a specialty in gastrointestinal cancers, Bekaii-Saab also heads the gastrointestinal cancer program at the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.
“It’s palliative now,” said Nancy who has sharply curtailed her nursing work due to the escalating situation and because she accompanies her husband to scans, tests and other medical emergencies like that of July 27, when he was rushed to Banner Gateway Hospital’s Emergency Room and quickly hustled to the ICU.
To help her family, Nancy launched a GoFundMe campaign in June with a poignant headline reading, “Pancreatic Cancer-Fighting, again” The $30,000 goal is a fraction of what the family really needs.
Nearly $8,000 has been raised since June 19.
“I was working full time, but since December, we’ve been in and out of the hospital so I’ve dropped down to as-need status. Basically, I’m working only when I can,” said Nancy, 48. “It’s all very stressful. I came down with shingles a couple months ago because of the stress.”
Their young son is also aware of the family’s plight and recently asked his mother if his dad was going to die.
“Jacob has been watching us go through a lot of stress, so I can’t sugarcoat it,” said Nancy, who has worked as a hospice nurse in her decades-long career. “I explained to him that daddy was very, very ill with his cancer, and yes, there was a chance he could die.”
“We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible, but our son can most definitely feel our stress and desperation,” she admitted. “It’s really hard. I don’t even know what to say about our future anymore. Steve never expected to be going through this. He was always healthy.”
And that is a message she wants to get out. That pancreatic cancer can happen to any man and woman.
Steve’s journey started when he decided to go to his Portland doctor to check out a recurring abdominal pain.
“They removed his gallbladder thinking that was the problem. He went home from surgery in three days, but he was jaundiced and his skin was itching so bad he stayed up all night. So back to the hospital where they found he had ‘something’ occluding the bile duct,” recalled his wife.
While they prepared him for surgery to place a stent in the bile duct, a gastrointestinal doctor decided to run a blood test used to detect tumors. The reading “was incredibly high,” Nancy recalled.
A subsequent biopsy indicated stage 2 pancreatic cancer.
“We were so happy because they’d had gotten it early,” she said.
There followed chemotherapy from September 2016 to March 2017, when Zimbelmann underwent an 11-hour Whipple surgery to remove his tumor from the head of his pancreas.
“Steve then went on an oral chemo drug until radiation started in May, 2017. He recovered quickly, and started feeling good again,” she recalled. “After a month of radiation and more chemo, we thought we were in the clear.”
And so, they moved to Ahwatukee.
“Steve is a U.S. Army vet with 11 years of service, but his military experience pales in comparison with the last couple years of fighting pancreatic cancer. We don’t know how, when or even if Steve will be cured.”
“He’s home but he’s very sick,” she said.
Amid her distress, Nancy stated she has a mission in sharing her story with the community.
“I want to increase the awareness of pancreatic cancer. My husband was diagnosed at 49 years of age, and he had no family history of this. It came out of nowhere,” she said.
“It’s really hard. I don’t even know what to say about our future anymore,” she added. “Steve never expected to be going through this. He was always healthy.”
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2019 approximately 56,770 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, with men slightly more common in men than women.
Johns Hopkins University lists it as the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women.
Although the Zimbelmanns remain hopeful of a miracle, they are all too aware of that statistic.
To help the Zimbelmann family, donations are being accepted at GoFundMe under Steve Zimbelmann’s name.
“We’re here by ourselves,” she said. “We’re in need of financial support as well as grief counseling support.”