Michael’s Michigan Answer: The Power of a Second Opinion

What do you do when you’re experiencing unexplained abdominal pain, weight loss and chronic fatigue and your doctor can’t tell you why? That’s what Michael Skaggs asked himself when scan after scan, test after test, and doctor after doctor were unable to help him.

“It was frustrating, but I refused to give up,” explains Michael, an avid runner and father of four. “I decided to keep fighting until I found an answer.” 

Michael’s journey to recovery began in late 2018. After years of eating right, running marathons and helping people in his career as a nurse, Michael thought he was the model of perfect health. So when not even his primary care doctor, multiple lab reports or being hospitalized could help him determine why he felt weak and was rapidly losing weight, Michael knew he could either continue to deteriorate or commit to changing his outcome. 

That’s when a coworker told him to go to Michigan Medicine.

“We found out Michigan Medicine was renowned at helping people with the rarest of disorders,” remembers Mike’s wife, Missy. “We knew we had to go there.”

By the spring of 2019, Michael was seated across from Michigan Medicine surgeon  Christopher Sonnenday, M.D., MHS, surgical director of liver transplantation. Dr. Sonnenday reviewed Michael’s previous scans and knew exactly what to do.

“When I reviewed the images and heard Michael’s story, I suspected pancreatic cancer,” Sonnenday says. “I told them right then that we needed to prove it so we could treat it.”

We found out Michigan Medicine was renowned at helping people with the rarest of disorders. We knew we had to go there.

Within days, a biopsy confirmed that Michael indeed had pancreatic cancer. To complicate matters, it was the most advanced kind. But Michigan Medicine’s Rogel Cancer Center had a plan. 

Given Michael’s stellar health prior to getting cancer, Dr. Sonnenday and Michael’s oncologist Mark Zalupski, M.D., recommended an aggressive treatment path, beginning with chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumor, followed by surgery to fully remove the remnants of the tumor. 

As they had hoped, Skaggs tolerated the six months of chemotherapy and radiation very well. He regained weight and strength – and amazingly, went back to running, finishing a half marathon the day after completing his chemotherapy.

“While I was focused on getting healthy to be around for my wife and kids, I just needed to put back on those shoes and get back to racing,” says Skaggs. 

Equally encouraging were Michael’s pathology reports. He was fortunate that, despite how long it took to diagnose his cancer, his tumor remained localized, with no evidence of metastatic disease when treatment began. With much of the tumor gone, removing the remaining tumor with clean margins was much easier for Dr. Sonnenday. 

Though surgery was a success, it took longer for Skaggs to rebound compared to the chemotherapy. Indeed, Michael would require roughly a year to fully heal from surgery. 

But heal he did, and in August of 2020, Skaggs finished a 10-mile race in Flint, Michigan. He even went on to finish a half marathon in Lansing the following month. 

While he still struggles with a few nutritional and gastrointestinal issues, Skaggs’ recovery continues to progress. “I know how fortunate I am to have beat the odds,” he says. “I was here to walk my youngest daughter down the aisle in September, and get to hold our first granddaughter all the time.”   

Michael now encourages patients like him to have hope, determination and to listen to their bodies. “Don’t let anyone minimize your symptoms or give up on finding answers,” he says. “Keep pushing, and don’t hesitate to seek out a second or even third opinion,” he says.