Karl and Nancy Schenk

Karl and Nancy Schenk

Renowned NBC News journalist Tom Brokaw and Mission Hill farmer Karl Schenk share local roots, but there’s one bond they wish they didn’t hold in common.

Both men have suffered from advanced stages of cancer.

However, their common fate has led to another connection — both men are featured in a documentary by renowned filmmaker Ken Burns. The production airs nationwide this week on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

The two-hour film, entitled "The Mayo Clinic: Faith, Hope, Science," airs at 8 p.m. today (Tuesday) with a repeat broadcast at 9 p.m. Wednesday. The program airs locally on South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB1).

Both Brokaw and Schenk were treated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Brokaw was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, while Schenk was treated for Stage 3 pancreatic cancer.

Brokaw credited the Mayo team with discovering his cancer, which affects blood cells in the bone marrow.

"My cancer, multiple myeloma, was diagnosed at Mayo by my internist when others had missed it," he told the Press & Dakotan.

Brokaw underwent chemotherapy and then began a drug maintenance program. He later announced his cancer was in remission.

Besides his medical treatment, Brokaw holds another connection with the Mayo Clinic.

"I was a member of the Mayo Board for two terms and remain a very close friend of Ken (Burns)," he said. "Mayo remains the citadel of health care worldwide, and this documentary celebrates that (fact)."

In his case, Schenk acknowledged pancreatic cancer is considered a death sentence. "After six months to a year, there was a 3 percent survival rate," he said.

However, Mayo Clinic doctors treated Schenk with a unique combination of surgery and chemotherapy. He beat the odds, and other patients have found success with the method.

"The numbers are starting to move up. Now, they’re figuring 7 to 8 percent have survived after five years," he said. "I’m just hoping that I can get the word out to somebody — there is hope out there."

With nearly 350 member stations, PBS reaches nearly 100 million people through television and nearly 28 million people online.


Schenk attended last week’s world premiere of the documentary in Rochester. The film received later showings around the nation.

"The premiere was great. We had about 5,000 people in attendance," he told the Press & Dakotan. "We were seated next to another featured Mayo patient’s family. Their daughter had passed, but her story of hope and the human spirit to survive was very powerful."

He considers the documentary part of paying it forward for all the support he has received along the way. Even the use of uplifting language is important, he added.

"Nobody wants to use the ‘C-word,’" he said, referring to cancer. "I always say I’m in remission, and this (sharing of my story) is part of the journey."

Schenk shared details of his early struggles in a SDPB blog posted by Katy Beem.

In October 2014, he complained of tremendous back pain while combining on his Mission Hill farm. The pain forced him to leave the harvest work and head home.

The unexplained pain and accompanying flu-like symptoms didn’t subside after a time. Schenk’s wife, Nancy, was a doctor and scheduled a medical appointment to learn the cause of his problems.

At first, doctors believed a stone was blocking his duct, and doctors attempted removal. Next, Schenk was sent to a gastrointestinal specialist in Omaha, Nebraska, who also attempted removal. The symptoms persisted, and an additional CT scan revealed a tumor. An immediate biopsy indicated malignancy.

"Your stomach migrates to your ankles very quickly when they give you that kind of news," Schenk said in the blog. "We all know somebody who’s had pancreatic cancer, and we know their laps around the sun are very limited."

Schenk told the Press & Dakotan he was shocked when he received the test results.

"I didn’t have any family history, like (former president) Jimmy Carter’s family where most (of them) had pancreatic cancer," he said.

Carter’s father, both his sisters and his brother died of pancreatic cancer. In addition, his mother suffered from pancreatic cancer.

Schenk didn’t fit lifestyle factors — such as smoking and obesity — associated with pancreatic cancer. "It’s just the luck of the draw sometimes. There wasn’t a reason for it."

Schenk learned he could expect to live six weeks without treatment or six months with chemotherapy.

"I was told in Omaha that I wasn’t a candidate for surgery and that I should get my affairs in order," he said. "My tumor was wrapped around my celiac vessel, and doctors didn’t want to go there (for surgical procedures)."

Nancy Schenk reached out to her brother, who has a Ph.D. in research at Mayo Clinic. Karl not only could schedule an immediate appointment, but he was also assigned a doctor willing to look at alternative treatments.

"I ended up at Mayo with Dr. Mark Truty, who was in place for another surgeon who would have told me to go home," Karl said. "Most surgeons would never have touched (my case), but Dr. Truty said he knew we could do this."

Truty proposed a protocol of chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries. The ability to pursue surgery depended on Schenk’s response to the chemotherapy drug FOLFIRONOX.

"There was a lot of pushback from (Truty’s) colleagues. My oncologist wasn’t a supporter or believer," Schenk told the Press & Dakotan. "But we went against the conventional wisdom."

Truty showed positive signs about his proposed treatment, but he also warned it was filled with risks.

"He told me that I was young and in good shape physically," Schenk said. "But there was also a high chance that I could die on the (surgical) table."

Despite the high risks, Schenk opted for the unconventional treatment.

"We went ahead with the protocol," he said. "I had a surgery (at Mayo) that was never performed before in the world. It was the first one of its kind."

Schenk lost his duodenum and pancreas, according to the SDPB blog.

However, he told the Press & Dakotan that he now lives cancer-free. In the process, he became the first member of what he describes as a "study group."

"I became the poster child for this treatment," he said. "Now, there are about 180 of us in the study group — and we’re still here."


Both Brokaw and Schenk believe the Burns documentary offers a powerful story of not only the Mayo family and their clinic but also the lives touched by their work.

In his personal life, Brokaw directs others to Mayo Clinic for a second medical opinion.

"I remain close to the clinic, often sending friends there when they’re unhappy with other hospitals," he said. "Invariably, they come home as true believers in its gold standard reputation."

Brokaw recommended Mayo Clinic for a family member, which became possible through his wife, Meredith.

"Meredith’s father, Dr. (Merritt) Auld, got my father, Red Brokaw, into Mayo to solve a lifelong, very serious back problem," he said. "Others had tried (to relieve his pain), but none succeeded. The Mayo surgeons gave (my father) a new life with their skills, and he never had another back issue."

The documentary brings together the 150-year mission of the Mayo Clinic and its impact on the countless lives, Tom Brokaw said. "This film celebrates all of that," he added.

Schenk sees the documentary as a celebration of hope. He stays in regular contact with Truty, and the Schenks have dedicated a Facebook page to fighting pancreatic cancer.

However, Karl emphasized the Burns documentary is about more than his battle or even pancreatic cancer.

"It covers a broad spectrum. It’s about a (medical) partnership," he said. "The film includes others who have received treatment, like the Dalai Lama and (the late) John McCain."

Schenk stressed the importance of early detection. However, he noted pancreatic cancer isn’t easily detectable and often isn’t diagnosed until its later stages. He hopes his story can lead to breakthroughs.

"(My story) gives non-traditional medical procedures more credibility. Sometimes, it leads to new medical advances," he said. "We hope to get the word out that there is a lot of hope and a lot of progress out there."

The message is especially important for pancreatic cancer, with its extremely high mortality rate, Schenk said.

"When you’re fighting something like this and you hear a good news story, a survivor’s story, you clamp onto it," he said.

"If it wasn’t for my wife, my surgeon and others who fought for me, I wouldn’t be here. If I get one person the help they need, it’s all worth it."

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.


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