Jefferson University Hospitals

Bethany Stiltner Paints a Bright Future

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As an art therapist, Bethany Stiltner helps individuals and families use photography, clay and other media to express and explore their emotions. In December — while she was a patient at Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals — Bethany used oil pastels and a sketchpad to channel her own feelings of anger and frustration about the disease that had invaded her body.

A native of Illinois who now resides in Elkins Park, Bethany is 38 years old and had been in good health until this past summer — when she began experiencing gastrointestinal bleeding and extreme fatigue. With her hectic schedule and demanding job, she chalked it up to stress, lack of exercise and simply "eating something funky."

Fortunately, her friends and loved ones recognized that her symptoms could be something much more serious and urged her to get checked out. It took three visits to her community hospital emergency room before she was diagnosed with a large pancreatic tumor and was found to have ongoing gastrointestinal bleeding requiring urgent surgery. A chance encounter between one of Bethany's friends and her neighbor, a physician, resulted in a list of experts at area hospitals. After speaking with a number of doctors, Bethany chose Dr. Harish Lavu and the Department of Surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She says she was impressed not only by the staff's expertise but also Dr. Lavu's demeanor on the phone.

"He wasn't trying to sell me on anything or recruit me. He was just matter of fact and kind in giving me answers to my questions," she says.

On December 16, Dr. Lavu performed an emergency distal pancreatectomy and splenectomy, which was successful in completely resecting Bethany's tumor and stopping the internal bleeding. It was not until the tumor was completely removed that pathologists could identify it as a neuroendocrine tumor (NET) of the islet cells in the pancreas. This type of tumor is rare, occurring in just one in 100,000 people.

With the successful surgery behind her, Bethany jokingly refers to the experience as her "Twelve Days of Christmas" — six days in her community hospital and six days at Jefferson for the surgery. As she continues healing, Bethany is eager to learn even more about the disease. She is also planning to participate in the Jefferson Pancreas Tumor Registry (JPTR), which recently expanded to include neuroendocrine tumors in addition to pancreatic and peri-ampullary adenocarcinomas. Since Bethany does not appear to have one of the known genetic markers for islet cell tumors, her participation in the JPTR is particularly important and may help identify new avenues for research.