“You can’t accept the fact that it’s happening to you – this happens to other people. It takes you a while to go through the various stages,” JR said. “You’re scared, angry – then you accept it and move on. But it’s over a very long period of time. I wasn’t ready to die. There was too much that I haven’t done or seen yet.”
JR was experiencing symptoms like indigestion and bloating in his abdomen. He thought he had an ulcer. His primary care physician assumed the same and ordered a CT scan. But the scan didn’t show an ulcer, it showed a growth on the head of JR’s pancreas.
He endured six rounds of chemotherapy before qualifying for the Whipple procedure. The surgery took longer than usual – 10 hours – but the nurses had him up and walking five hours later. One lap around the floor meant he could go home. It took him five days.
“My wife, Camille, was with me every minute of every day. Every walk that I took, she was there with me. She slept on this little, tiny couch, but she never left the entire time.”
JR credits Camille for getting him through his toughest moments.
“There were days when I told her, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. It is too much.’ And she would sit down with me, consult and she would talk. And by the way, she has a master’s degree in counseling. So that’s what kept me going one day at a time, one step at a time.”
More Compassion, More Empathy
Six weeks after the procedure, JR was back in treatment again. This time, a different type of chemotherapy, which took a harsh toll on his body.
“You are sick a lot. You sleep a lot. You really don’t know what’s going on around you. I don’t remember most of 2021. And to this very day, Camille and I will watch a TV show and she’ll say, ‘You’ve seen this before,’ and I’ll have no recollection of it whatsoever.”
JR is grateful. He feels fortunate that his pancreatic cancer was found early. “If I wasn’t for early detection – if I didn’t have the symptoms and go to my doctor to find out what was going on – my cancer wouldn’t have been diagnosed at stage II.”
As of February 2022, JR’s scans show no evidence of the disease. That April, he qualified and enrolled in a novel clinical trial evaluating preventive measures for pancreatic cancer in patients who have had surgery.
JR says he’s a different person – and it’s not just the weight loss and hair that he’s vowed to never cut because, “Once you lost it, you appreciate it more when it comes back.”
“I see things differently. I feel more compassion, more empathy for people in this type of situation. Pancreatic cancer is an awful disease and it’s a lot more prevalent than people realize. It’s very hard to find somebody who has not been touched by a friend or relative who’s had pancreatic cancer.”
Control in the Midst of Chaos
Now, JR is changing the course for others with Camille by his side.
Camille had been touched by pancreatic cancer before JR’s diagnosis. Her father passed away from the disease.
“I lost my father to pancreatic cancer 16 years ago,” Camille said. “At the time of his passing, I really didn’t know much about the disease, but knew it was horrible. He was stage IV when he was diagnosed and given six months to live – he made it two days shy of that mark.”
Camille didn’t think much more about pancreatic cancer until JR was diagnosed.
“It’s like the world came crashing down and all I could think of was how horrible it was watching my mother and father go through the last six months of his life. And that was all I knew and that’s what I feared for my husband.”
A self-described “Type-A personality,” Camille looked for ways to find control in the midst of this chaotic news. To help JR, she needed to find something she could do that she could have control over.
“The one thing I could control was learning as much as I could, as quickly as I could, because when you receive a diagnosis like this, the first thing you do is Google. And all that did was make our fears worse.”
Camille was searching for a light at the end of the tunnel – a bit of hope in order to get him through.
“That’s when I found PanCAN,” Camille said. “And it was just as if this tremendous weight was lifted because instantly I knew I didn’t have to continue to go down this dark Google tunnel. PanCAN Patient Services are people you can contact who have information and resources – a place to talk and truly get the facts. It was a turning point for us – that was the change.”
“What gives me hope,” she said, “is knowing that we can change the course – we can change the story and advocate for ourselves and each other. There’s a whole community of people who have been affected by this disease. To be a voice in that community builds hope that we’re going to end pancreatic cancer.”
Honoring Loved Ones, Giving Back
Camille and JR take steps to end pancreatic cancer at PanCAN PurpleStride Houston. They’re co-captains for Team KPCA (Kick Pancreatic Cancer’s A**). At PurpleStride 2023, Team KPCA raised $55,000, more than doubling their $25,000 fundraising goal. For PurpleStride 2024, they bumped their goal up to $60,000.
JR participates to bring awareness to the disease and financial support to PanCAN to fund critical programs and research. For Camille, being a Strider means she gets to honor the people she loves.
“I stride not only to honor my husband, but also in memory of my father and with hope for my son who also has the gene mutation and has a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer in the future. I also stride for all of the other KPCA warriors that we’ve been touched by in our lives, the friends, the family who have lost loved ones as well.”
As JR and Camille continue to spread awareness and raise funds, they want the public to know to take your symptoms seriously, especially during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
“If you have symptoms, get it checked out,” JR said. “Early detection can save your life.”
Any treatments, including clinical trials, mentioned in this story may not be appropriate or available for all patients. Doctors take many things into account when prescribing treatments including the stage and type of cancer and the overall health of the patient.