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A humble victory: Magee beats pancreatic cancer

The Rev. John Magee, (center) posed with son James and grandson Henry 3, after losing his hair from chemotherapy treatments last summer. The senior pastor at Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove, beat pancreatic cancer. Submitted photo courtesy of John Magee.1 / 2
The Rev. John Magee discusses theology with son James at Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove. Magee beat pancreatic cancer and is advocating for more research money for the disease. William Loeffler / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

The Rev. John Magee is now a member of the pancreatic cancer survivors club. He hopes it's a lifetime membership.

"I'm humbled," Magee said. "Some may call it a miracle, I call it a blessing. I'm just grateful."

Last year, the pastor of Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, the most common form of pancreatic cancer.

"My wife was told by one clinician that I would die from this. He said, 'You will die within 18 months.' That was hard for her to hear."

The statistics would seem to bear out that pessimistic prognosis, however. Less than 10 percent of pancreatic cancer patients live past five years.The symptoms — which can include abdominal or back pain, weight loss and jaundice — usually don't manifest themselves until it's too late.

The pancreas, tucked deep inside the abdominal cavity, can be an ideal place for a tumor to grow undetected. This year, an estimated 53,760 people in the United States will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. About 43,090 will die, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. It's become the third leading cause of cancer death in the country.

Luckily for Magee, his cancer was stage one. It had not spread to other parts of his body. Surgery could save him, but there was a problem: The tumor had fastened itself on an artery.

To shrink the tumor, clinicians administered Folfirinox, an aggressive cocktail of five chemical agents. The sessions lasted for days and ravaged his body.

"Many people die because of the chemotherapy," Magee said. "Because it's very aggressive. I had a friend who was diagnosed around the same time he had gotten through two rounds of the Folfirinox. He called me and asked me if I would do his funeral. He said, 'I'm going to a hospice. I can't take another round of this.' But he died within 10 days."

Magee delivered his friend's eulogy in September at Kok Funeral Home.

"I wore a chemotherapy pump," he said. "It was a very sobering moment. There was no guarantee that my chemotherapy was working."

After eight rounds of chemotherapy at Minnesota Oncology, Magee had surgery at the Mayo Clinic. His son James said the surgeons told him that they were able to peel the tumor off of his father's artery, thus avoiding a highly invasive procedure known as arterial resection.

"We had the 'what ifs' in the back our minds, but once we got past that initial shock of what the new reality was we began to draw strength from each other," James Magee said.

The doctors said Magee is cancer free. But medical bills have piled up. Friends, family and congregants have organized a benefit for Magee Sept. 17 at Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove.

"We've beat pancreatic cancer — me my doctors, my family , the church — we've done it together," Magee said.

As to whether his illness or recovery was God's will, that's the wrong question, Magee said. Instead of focusing on why something happened, concentrate on what you're going to do about it.

"The Bible agrees with the randomness of life," he said. "It's really what we do with things."

Magee and his wife Lynn are active in the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a nationwide support and advocacy group. In June, the couple and fellow church members were part of a delegation who traveled to Washington D.C., where they lobbied members of Congress for more funds to fight pancreatic cancer. They met with staff for Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Jason Lewis.

James Magee will run Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October to raise money for pancreatic cancer research.

For more information on the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network or to register for the Sept. 17 Purpleridestride 5K run/walk fundraiser, visit https://www.pancan.org.

If you go:

The benefit for the Rev. John Magee will be 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17, at Light the Way Church, 7000 Jamaica Ave. and 70th Street in Cottage Grove 1-4 p.m. There will be food, silent auction, live music and a children's carnival. A goodwill donation is suggested. For more information, visit http://lightthewaychurch.com.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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