Internist Beats Pancreatic Cancer, Gives Others Hope

After surviving a terminal illness Ken Rybicki, MD, made a number of life-changing decisions: he started a company to sell the supplements he took during his illness, changed his practice's model and became more involved in the community.

Behind every successful man there’s a great woman … or so the old and certainly chauvinistic expression goes. And in the case of Ken Rybicki, MD, a board-certified internist and primary care physician at St. Louis-based SignatureMD, and instructor of internal medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine, those words ring true.

As Rybicki recalls, he had completed a doctoral degree at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in physiology and was doing an internal medicine residency in St. Louis with the intent to return to Texas for a cardiology fellowship. He was approached by an internal medicine primary care physician who was 60 years old, planned to retire soon, and needed help in his practice. He offered Rybicki a job.

“I went to my wife, and she says, ‘We’ve got three kids, you haven’t had a job ever since I’ve known you, and you have a chance to make some good money and not train for three more years in cardiology? Yeah, that’s a good idea,’” says Rybicki, laughing as he tells the story. “So, that’s why I went into internal medicine. And consequently, absolutely loved it.”

No slouch himself

In 2002, while working at one of the two solo practices he and the physician who recruited him had set up, Rybicki began to experience stomach issues. He thought it might be a gall bladder problem, and asked his nurse to draw some labs on him. But later that day following an ultrasound he learned that he had pancreatic cancer.

“And at that point in time, my survival chances were less than 1%,” Rybicki recalls.

Undaunted, Rybicki had major surgery, numerous chemotherapies and radiation. But the key was getting into a clinical trial that involved an experimental approach to using three previously approved chemotherapies.

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” he says. “Fortunately, my insurance covered it because the agents had already been approved. And so, I’m still around 12 years later.”

Residual effect

Still, the treatment regimen took its toll. Rybicki was out of practice for a long time, sick and weak from the chemotherapy, and lost 80 pounds. And as he began to build himself back up, he made some important decisions.

“I did do a lot of my own research, as far as alternative treatments, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and that kind of thing,” Rybicki says. “And then I put together a program for myself. I’m not a holistic medicine doc, you know. I’m a scientist. But I know there are other things that can help, and I set out to research that and put a program together for myself back then.”

As time went on and Rybicki shared his experience with pancreatic cancer with patients, many would ask, “What do you do?” and “We’re interested in alternative treatments.” But there was no easy answer, since Rybicki frequented multiple health food stores in order to support his regimen.

Then one day he was meeting with cancer researchers from one of the grant committees upon which he sat at Washington University, and the light bulb went on.

“Why don’t I market this thing?” he thought. “It works for me, and the proceeds could be used to help fund cancer research.”

The result was a vitamin supplement company, NeoVitin, a nutritional supplement that contains multivitamins and antioxidants — a combination of all the supplements that Rybicki took as part of his individual program — that launched about four years ago. His son, a CPA, runs the company.

Career-changing focus

Developing a nutritional supplement and taking up running — today Rybicki competes in full and half marathons — were not the only changes the internist experienced following his battle with pancreatic cancer.

He took a close look at the way he was practicing medicine — starting his day at 4 a.m. and finishing at 7 p.m., and seeing 30 or 40 patients in between — and felt like he wasn’t doing justice to his patients.

“I needed to spend time on more important things like prevention and wellness, as opposed to having people in for just two or three minutes to check their blood pressure, or give them antibiotics for their cold,” Rybicki says. “I got tired of that model.”

He moved to a concierge model, what he refers to as the personal health care model, in order to spend a great deal more time with patients discussing their health, while still maintaining a similar income. He also hired a physician out of residency to handle the patients who couldn’t or preferred not to switch to the concierge model.

“It was a difficult decision,” Rybicki says. “I would up having to turn away 2,000 patients that I’d seen for 22 years. But it was the right thing to do, and it has worked out very well.”

Giving back

Rybicki and his practice, SignatureMD, are heavily involved in the community with respect to cancer fundraising and awareness.

“When you go through a terminal illness — and I literally put all my affairs in order after my diagnosis — and you’re still around, you definitely get other priorities,” he explains. “I think that’s important, to give back a little.”

Beyond the local community, Rybicki regularly receives phone calls and emails from pancreatic cancer patients around the country wanting to talk; wanting to know what he did; looking for answers. They want to survive pancreatic cancer, and Rybicki admits that sometimes those interactions can be a little frustrating.

“I can’t tell somebody, ‘Well I got this miracle thing you have to do and you’ll cure it.’ I just don’t have that,” he explains. “If I did, it would be great.”

What he does have, however, and what he gives to those he speaks with, is hope.

“Every one of them is encouraged, at least, by the hope,” Rybicki says. “It takes an emotional toll because, you know, a high percentage don’t survive. But on the other hand, I feel like at least I can give people some hope. And that’s a very rewarding feeling.”