16-year pancreatic cancer survivor

Michael Thiel is a 16-year pancreatic cancer survivor.

Editor’s note: Our weekly “It Starts with Someone” series takes a turn this month as we focus solely on people who have survived pancreatic cancer for more than a decade. Today, Pancreatic Cancer Action Network supporter and 16-year survivor Michael Thiel shares his inspiring story. Keep an eye out for more stories from long-term survivors every week in August.

We don’t know each other – except we do. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing it may be because you have been affected by pancreatic cancer.

Long-term pancreatic cancer survivor with his daughters

Michael and his daughters, who were 5 and 6 years old when he learned he had pancreatic cancer.

Me too – 16 years ago.

I had learned long before that the communications associated with really big changes in my life were short and to the point: “I do,” “It’s a girl,” and “Your father’s gone…” were a few that marked key indications that things were about to be very different.

In May 2002, the doctor had one of those conversations with me. It was three words, starting with “you” and ending with “cancer.”

And I thought my world had ended.

My first reactions were a jumble. I remember leaving the office in a numb haze and looking at all the other people around me – ordinary people leading ordinary lives, probably none of whom had heard the sentence I just had. Or that my wife and my 5- and 6-year-old daughters had to hear.

I honestly did not know what to do, and I felt completely alone. This resolved relatively quickly into a plan that included surgery, follow-up radiation and chemo.

I spent the next three weeks bouncing between defiance and terror. My cancer was taking me places I’d never been before – way out on the edge, and that edge was very clear – live or die. Some of the feelings I had were not pretty or restrained. But they were mine and expressing them in the moment they were happening really helped.

I also had visions of hope.

16-year survivor plays his guitar

Michael Thiel

I remember talking to my best friend and describing to him how he and I would be sitting together at my eldest daughter’s high school graduation one day – at that time 12 years in the future – and looking back on all of this. I made that vision as clear as possible, until I could see it, hear it, smell it and taste it. I hung on to it for years.

My eldest daughter recently graduated from college.

And I had friends – people who loved me. Their support and prayers were critical. Of course, I had to let them in for it to be of any use, which took a while. My first instinct was to “be a man,” and just deal with it. That was not a good idea, and I’m glad I got over it.

In early June 2002, I had surgery. And here I am today, 16 years later.

What did I do and learn that could be helpful to others going through what I did?

Here goes:

  • I got information that was useful to me and I ignored what wasn’t. I never went on the internet.
  • I let myself feel what I was feeling. I was not noble or brave. I was scared and defiant. I had two small children and a life to live. This devil was eating me up, and it had to go. There were times that I was afraid it might win, but I never really believed it would.
  • I created a “vision” beyond what I was faced with at the time. That picture of my friend and me at my daughter’s graduation pulled me forward.
  • I accepted the support, prayers and love of the people around me. It’s a shame that you have to get really sick to discover how much you mean to people, but once I did, I wallowed in it!
  • I accepted the advice of those same people. I didn’t do everything they suggested – in fact, I hardly did any of it. (I had one guy tell me to eat nothing but broccoli, dried rattlesnake and raw honey, and believe me, that was not the weirdest!) What I recognized was that the advice was an expression of love and concern for me, and so it carried with it the affirmation of life and power.
  • I realized that I would never be the same. Crossing the bridge of cancer was just that – a crossing, and the world would never be as it was again. At first, I desperately wanted that reality to not be true – I so wanted to get back to my “normal” life. I wanted it so badly that it took therapy to help me accept and integrate all my experiences.
  • I realized that I would always be the same. I didn’t become a saint or shaman. I could still get irritated if somebody cut in front of me in traffic. I could still be petty, afraid, judgmental and eat junk food, just like before I had cancer. I could also love, be deeply moved, feel and show compassion as well as empathy, and be brave when I needed to. In other words, I was still me, with all my faults and virtues intact. And that was OK.
  • I discovered that this world is a simpler and more complex place than I ever knew. There are times when I am struck by the searing realization that my life is hanging by a thread. There are other times when I feel held securely in a web of love, connection, commitment, purpose, courage and wonder. I have come to know that both are true.

— Michael Thiel, 16-year pancreatic cancer survivor

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