In May of 1998, as we were getting ready to attend our son’s graduation from the University of California at Berkeley, it should have been one of the happiest times of life for our family. Instead, it was overshadowed by the knowledge that my father was going to die soon from pancreatic cancer.

Like many people, I had never heard of pancreatic cancer until Michael Landon revealed his diagnosis. Since I grew up watching Bonanza, I had a deep crush on “Little Joe,” and I felt great sorrow upon hearing the news of his illness. However, I did not understand the full impact of it until my father’s diagnosis. I can still remember the doctor’s words as he delivered the news that would forever change our lives. Unable to meet our gaze, he told us to go home and put my father’s affairs in order.

Overwhelmed with disbelief, we asked the typical questions: “What about chemo, radiation, or more surgery? Is there anything else can we do for my father?” Although he was given three to six months to live, this wonderful and beloved man didn’t even survive a month. After his death, my uncle mentioned that my grandmother had also died from pancreatic cancer.

In 2002, still recovering from the shock of losing my father, our family was forced to deal with another devastating blow – the death of my uncle. He was almost the mirror image of my dad. Like my father, he never complained of feeling ill and never missed a day of work, yet again we were told to go home and put his house in order. A few days after his diagnosis, my uncle died from the same disease, just like his mother and his brother before him.

Losing three members of my family to pancreatic cancer was mind blowing. How could this be? What about my sons? What could this mean to them? I had no answers; only unanswerable questions.

When I developed vague symptoms, I asked my doctor if it could be cancer. “Not to worry, it’s probably just an ulcer,” he said. When the results came back, I knew what they were before he even spoke. I recognized the same avoidance of eye contact we had seen with my father’s doctor. He told me I was lucky: the tumor was small and it was caught early. If I started treatment immediately I would have a better chance than most.

The words kept playing in my mind: “pancreatic cancer” and “inoperable.” I started chemotherapy immediately, and also underwent radiation for a short period of time. Because of my early diagnosis, the support of my family and those closest to us, and the grace of God, I am still here today to tell my story. But the disease still plays a prominent role in my life: my mom was diagnosed in 2005. Together, we continue to fight.

When my father was originally diagnosed, I didn’t know a lot about this disease. Unfortunately, at that time there was no Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to turn to. I searched the Internet and came across a Johns Hopkins University online discussion group. There, I met others who were as confused and frustrated as I was about the lack of information.

Through that group, I met (Pancreatic Cancer Action Network founder) Pam Acosta Marquardt, who had lost her own mother to the disease. She knew what I was going through and was very supportive. She was a great help and comfort to me during this time, and I’ll never forget her kindness. Because of this initial contact, I found myself turning to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network after each diagnosis.

In March of 2008, I attended the organization’s second annual Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. There, I met two young women who lost their best friend to pancreatic cancer. I was in awe of their dedication and commitment. Like me, they were also from Orange County, California, and invited me to attend an affiliate meeting. Hearing their emotional stories made me realize I had to do something, so I joined the Orange County Affiliate as their Media/Public Relations Representative. I also share my experiences with others by supporting the PanCAN Patient Services network.

I am in a unique position – I have been on both sides of the fence, as both a caretaker and a survivor. Through my experiences, I now bring hope to those who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, survivors, as well as the precious caretakers. I want to make a difference so that one day, no one ever has to hear the words ?o home and put your house in order?again.

Roberta Luna
Orange County, CA

Contact PanCAN Patient Services
If you have any questions about pancreatic cancer, contact PanCAN Patient Services for free, personalized and in-depth disease information and resources.