From Duke Cancer Center Patients to Cancer Care Advocates

By Larissa Biggers
November 01, 2023
couple look at each other in cancer waiting room

Cancer survivors Cliff and Pat Chieffo now serve on the Duke Cancer Center survivorship board.

Cliff Chieffo, his wife Pat, and their oldest daughter have more in common than family ties. They are all cancer survivors, and all three are thankful for the role Duke played in their cancer treatment, remission, and life after cancer. Today Pat and Cliff are in remission. As advocates for patients at Duke Cancer Center and beyond, they are eager to spread the word about the top-notch, compassionate care they experienced.

Duke Cancer Center Provides Expert Care for the Family 

Cliff Chieffo, now age 86, was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2017 after a CT scan and biopsy at a hospital near the family’s former home in Washington, DC. Further testing determined that the cancer was malignant and needed to be removed. At the time, his older daughter, who lived in North Carolina, was receiving treatment for breast cancer at Duke Cancer Center. Because Duke had the advanced technologies and expertise to handle his specific type of cancer, his doctor in DC recommended that Chieffo go to Duke Cancer Center too. Pat Chieffo had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer years earlier and decided to transfer her care there as well.

Hear more about Chieffo's cancer journey at Duke. 

Minimally Invasive Whipple Surgery for Pancreatic Cancer

In early 2018 Chieffo underwent Whipple surgery, a complex operation that is considered one of the most effective treatments for pancreatic cancer. Chieffo’s surgical oncologist at Duke Health, Sabino Zani, MD, performed minimally invasive, robotic-assisted Whipple surgery with tiny instruments that are passed through several small incisions. Although it is not available at many centers, it offers several potential benefits, including less blood loss, less pain, a faster recovery, and a shorter hospital stay. "Having the experience and the latest technology really made a difference in this case," said James L. Abbruzzese, MD, a Duke medical oncologist who cared for Chieffo after surgery. “And Dr. Zani, he's a fantastic surgeon.”

A Rare Cancer Means an Uncertain Future

Chieffo understood the gravity of his diagnosis and hoped, but did not expect, to live much longer after surgery. “Because it was so rare, the anticipated course of his cancer was uncertain,” Dr. Abbruzzese explained. Happily, the surgery was effective, even without chemotherapy or radiation, and Chieffo has been cancer-free for six years. His wife calls him “a walking miracle.” Today, she and her daughter are also in remission. “I really feel so fortunate,” he said. “Duke is another family for us, and I think family is what keeps you going.”

A Mission to Help Fellow Cancer Patients

Now retired from long academic careers and living in Cary, NC, Cliff and Pat Chieffo serve on the Duke Cancer Center survivorship board. “The Duke Cancer Center’s support program is unbelievable,” said Pat Chieffo. “Every cancer patient has access to a nurse navigator, who is the person that sets you up with what you need. There’s not a thing they won't or can’t do for you. Not every place has that.” They have made it their mission to share their story and to help others benefit from everything that Duke Cancer Center has to offer, including medical expertise, advanced treatments and technologies, and personalized care.

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Pancreatic Cancer