• Cancer

    ‘I’ll be there for my daughters,’ Florida woman’s pledge while navigating cancer

Lorie Kirkman with her husband and three daughters.

Lorie Kirkman embraces a lifestyle of being on the move. The 38-year-old is a wife and mom to three young daughters who are active in their Northeast Florida community and have a passion for being outdoors.

After working out at her gym one day, Lorie began to feel pain in her back and shoulder. When it became uncomfortable to sit or lay down, and she noticed exhaustion and difficulty sleeping, Lorie went to her local physician for answers.

"My first thought when they told me that I had cancer was: I have three little girls," says Lorie. "I can't have cancer. I have three little girls."

A pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor had destroyed multiple areas of bone, including 25% of her T5 vertebrae and nearly 80% at T8. The result was a pathologic fracture with angulation of the spine, which put her at risk of a spinal cord injury and potential paralysis.

Lorie’s care was transferred to Mayo Clinic in Florida, where a multidisciplinary team could coordinate her care.

"Once I reviewed her imaging, I had a discussion with Lorie and explained the precarious situation that she was in," says Dr. Ian Buchanan, a Mayo Clinic neurosurgeon. "We discussed with radiation and medical oncology teams, and we all agreed that we needed to proceed with surgery as the first step, with the explicit understanding being that she would need additional therapies, including radiation and chemotherapy."

Lorie's care team, including Dr. Jason Starr, a medical oncologist, began implementing the subsequent phases of treatment with insights from her surgery.

"Having the expertise and ability for one physician to pick up the phone, speak to an expert, and get real-time recommendations is unique to Mayo Clinic," says Dr. Starr.

Lorie Kirkman reading with her three daughters.

"As physicians, we all go into this profession because we want to help people. An important part of helping patients is getting them back to a good quality of life," says Dr. Buchanan. "When you plan a surgery and interact with a patient, the goals of care have to align with what quality of life means for them."

For Lorie, quality of life means being there for her daughters — bringing them to school events and playing outdoors.

"I want my daughters to see me as their mom," says Lorie. "That was one of my promises to them: I'm still your mom, you're not losing me. I'm still here, I'll be OK. There are things that I have to do. There are doctor's appointments I have to go to. There are medicines that I'm going to have to take and therapies that I'm going to endure."

Lorie returned to the gym — building her strength — got back to playing with her daughters in the yard, and, over the summer, took her family on a kayaking adventure.

Lorie Kirkman kayaking in Northeast Florida.

"Mayo Clinic is at the forefront of these research efforts so that we have better treatment options and patients can live better, longer, fulfilling lives," says Dr. Starr. "Lorie is doing all the heavy lifting, and we're cheering her on."

She is focused on her family and taking each day as it comes.

"For somebody with currently incurable cancer, it's nice to know that Mayo Clinic is working toward finding other treatments or a cure — that'd be nice," says Lorie. "Because every little girl needs her mama forever."