Since my diagnosis in 2011, I have been far too busy living to consider dying. Reality for me and my family is living day to day with terminal cancer, making each day count, building lasting memories, and strengthening family ties.
As Hillary Clinton once said, “It takes a village to raise a child,” so does it also take a village to combat this dreaded disease. A network of support, love, prayers, and hard work are key aspects to keeping it at bay, and at best a “secondary issue” in our lives.
That framework consists of, first and foremost, my family. My husband, David, caregiver extraordinaire, who puts my needs above all else. Children and grandchildren who have championed the cause by keeping me so busy, and making my life so worthwhile that I cannot dwell on death. And I must give thanks to my extended family, siblings, neighbors, friends, and coworkers at my side, sisters and brothers in the sandbox of life. Credit is also due to my healthcare team, always at my side, honoring my wishes, working around my schedule of living. Last, but of course, just as important, organizations like the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network who provide support, awareness, public education, and funding to eradicate this cancer.
In these last few years, I’ve experienced the same highs and lows that many who suffer from this disease have experienced. My cancer, an aggressive adenocarcinoma, was diagnosed in September of 2011. Inoperable, terminal and already metastasized to the spleen, liver and other surrounding organs elicited little hope or confidence from my oncology team. Not a surgical candidate, I was more or less told to go home and get my things in order; thus, I had to convince them I was not ready to die. But my condition was considered dire. The tumor on my pancreas was surrounding the mesentery artery and vein.
I started out in a chemotherapy based study in 2011 which was discontinued for “poor results” in December. Thus, I began another study with three chemotherapy drugs. I suffered very few side effects, and I kept busy. Three Pancreatic Cancer Action Network PurpleStride walks in Detroit and Indianapolis, three cruises to the Caribbean with children and grandchildren, two trips to Disney World, two 3-day reunions at Cedar Point in Ohio where all three of our children worked during their college years. It was great fun riding the coasters “no handed” with the grandkids, chasing the little ones around kiddyland. We made countless trips to Lake Orion, Michigan, Indianapolis, and Washington D.C. for grandchildren activities and events.
After three stable CT scans, I experienced a reaction to the one of the chemotherapy drugs resulting in the discontinuing of that modality of care. Several infections with hospitalizations and long complicated antibiotic courses, multiple stent placements and revisions to keep my biliary duct open, post anesthesia complications such as paralyzed vocal cords and respiratory problems, the cancer gained ground, settling in three areas of my spine.
And my most recent hospitalization for cholecystitis (inflamed gallbladder) gave it an even stronger foothold. The tumor had invaded the gallbladder connecting it to the liver, and I shunned an external drain placement and opted for a course of antibiotics to clear the infection. The downtime of “no treatment” was a detriment, allowing it to spread to the mesentery and my abdominal wall.
Yet, I still don’t feel ready to die. Does anyone ever get that feeling? My desire and determination to go on remains just as strong, the flame of living burns just as bright. I have started a new therapy, a combination of two chemotherapy drugs. So I am once again faced with clumps of my hair falling out and mouth sores that make it difficult to eat anything. Yet, I continue to hold on for more time, building those memories; traveling here and there, considering every day on earth a blessing.
If my story touches anyone’s life, if it is similar to your own, you certainly don’t need advice but only to know you are not alone. But if I were to advise others, I would say this, “Tell your loved ones each day how you feel about them. Seek forgiveness for life’s mistakes and try to be a better person each and every day. Count your blessings and remain positive despite your difficulties, and above all keep your feet moving.”
Is there a cure for cancer like mine? No. But surviving is more than laying oneself down in bed and waiting out your time. It is making the most of each day you have left. Don’t go through life looking for green grass when all you have to do is look down at your feet to find it. My heaven has always been right here for 64 years, in the green, green grass of home, surrounded by my loved ones, treasuring every moment spent with them.