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Updated Survivor Story: Maija Eerkes

I celebrated a joyfully anticipated retirement in December 2005, looking forward to spending much of the winter skiing in Sun Valley and having fun with friends.

During our 10-hour drive to Sun Valley in January, I complained to my husband, Al,that our next SUV needed to have more comfortable seats for long drives.  I just couldn’t get my back in a comfortable position.  In the coming weeks, I found myself popping ibuprofen more frequently, adequately addressing the discomfort in my back and chest.  This “remedy” remained in place for several months.

In late spring, I commented to my internist that the lingering discomfort was perhaps caused by a sports injury. He felt it would be prudent to determine whether my theory was correct.  An ultrasound led to further tests; by mid-August, at age 52, I was diagnosed with an exocrine tumor of the pancreas, called adenocarcinoma. As is the case with the majority of pancreatic cancers, it was “unresectable” (inoperable) because the tumor was wrapped around major blood vessels. 

A laparoscopy followed and confirmed that some spots on the liver were simply “birthmarks,” not metastases, allowing radiation of the pancreas to be part of an aggressive five-and-a-half week treatment protocol that also included the use of two chemotherapy drugs.  This treatment protocol is considered intense, and “overly toxic” by many professionals in the field.  Since I was in excellent overall health at the time of diagnosis, I wanted to have the most aggressive treatment possible, even though the radiation oncologist warned me that after about three weeks I would want to crawl into a corner and die. I figured that if I didn’t try this, I would likely die anyway. I now realize that I was very fortunate to have this treatment option available locally, in the Seattle area.

The resulting anorexia was more of a problem for my caregivers, Al and my dear friend, Jan.  I didn’t feel like drinking water or eating.  They felt compelled to scheme about ways to get me to eat anything!  I lost 20 pounds.  Weighing 117 pounds on my 5’8” frame was not an ideal look!

I didn’t realize that a complete exfoliation of the soles of my feet would be a surprise benefit.  They became tender, the skin peeled off; one month following treatment, I had smooth baby-soft skin.  My oncologist said he wouldn’t charge extra for the “spa” treatment!

Six weeks after completion of treatment, the CT scan revealed that the tumor had shrunk by 80%.  By February 2007, the subsequent CT scan could no longer detect the tumor.  Now I was on a nine-month combination chemotherapy protocol.

The predictable hair loss was counteracted with synthetic wigs.  Never a “bad hair day”… Erin, Skye and Mandy were always at their best.  That is, until I fried Mandy one night, removing a tart from an oven.  By the way, the wigs came with names (contrary to what a lot of people thought). A less palatable side effect was an odiferous infection of my fingernail beds, followed by some nails falling off.  Not a good look, but one learns that there could be worse consequences.

With good fortune, I managed to feel well during the entire chemotherapy treatment, and resumed hiking, playing tennis and working out. 

Alien Tumor (A.T. as my friend named “it”) packed his suitcase and moved north, to a lymph node above my clavicle, in October 2007.  Since I had responded well to the chemo-radiation on the first round, it was determined to apply a similar approach for a six-week period.  I asked my oncologist if I could ski with the re-installed PICC line and the chemotherapy pack (“dog on a leash”).  He didn’t think that was a winning idea.  I had visions of his concern…chemo spewed on the slopes.  Nonetheless, I decided to ski (with friends forming a protective barrier of “security” around me).  I was happy, it worked just fine, and I brought photos of “The Infusiastic Skier” to share with my medical team.

I’ve been on “work release” from treatments since the end of January 2008.  It’s been seven years since my initial diagnosis, and I’m enjoying perfect health.  I continue to have routine CT scans and blood tests every 6 months.

As a very fortunate survivor of pancreatic cancer, it’s now my calling to work on behalf of this cause.  This includes fundraising and creating awareness through local events, connecting people within the pancreatic cancer community, offering hope to newly diagnosed patients and their families, lobbying our legislators for increased emphasis on research and NCI funding for this disease.  I am proud to be a volunteer member of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Survivor Network (offered through Patient and Liaison Services), as well as a volunteer at the institution where I was treated.  Within the Puget Sound Affiliate for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, I am the Advocacy Coordinator, leading the charge to increase awareness at the various levels of government.  Additionally, I am a member of the Volunteer Advisory Council through which I am able to provide feedback and advice to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network with regard to local events for creating awareness and fundraising, the volunteer affiliate network and other initiatives of the organization.

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