Esther Lee: Pro athlete physical therapist’s pancreatic cancer journey

After she learned she was dying, Esther Lee had to make some calls. She spoke with Venus and Serena Williams, her brother and her sister, her friends and some other clients. One of the last and most difficult was Shaun White. Esther was standing in a field in the heat somewhere in Los Angeles in late July 2020. He answered quickly, excited to hear from her, but then she told him her news, and he started crying. 

Over the first half of the year, Esther had lost her appetite, her abdomen swelled, she struggled to breathe and she was always tired. That July, a series of tests and scans revealed a tumor the size of a watermelon in her abdomen. Smaller tumors and lesions dotted her spleen, lungs, lymph nodes and the bones of her spinal column.

She had Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Esther and White cried together on the phone. They told each other they loved each other. “‘What’s next?’” White recalls asking. “Is there hope? Can I dare to hope?”

Esther wasn’t sure. Her grandmother had died years earlier, two weeks after receiving a similar diagnosis. The five-year survival rate for Stage IV pancreatic cancer is 1%. The life expectancy, three to five months; the average patient lives for one year. Esther’s tumor was five times larger than the average pancreatic cancer tumor.