…and then on October 1, 2007, about a month before my 58th birthday, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and my life changed. In mid-August, I had been having what my family doctor and I both thought was diverticulitis. She treated the condition with antibiotics and told me she wanted to see me again in two weeks. When I returned, she palpated my abdomen, decided she didn’t like what she was feeling and sent me for a CT scan. This revealed a suspicious shadow on my pancreas, so I had an MRI done. This time there was no doubt. A 1.6 cm mass in the tail of the pancreas was visible. On October 16, I attended the Multi Disciplinary Pancreatic Cancer Clinic at Johns Hopkins and on October 24 I had surgery. Dr. Martin Makary and his team at Johns Hopkins performed a 5 ˝ hour distal pancreatectomy with splenecotomy. The tumor was a 2.2 cm ductal adenocarcinoma. There were clear margins to 12 mm and 30 lymph nodes were removed…all negative. The only bad news, other than the tumor was an adenocarcinoma, was that it was moderately differentiated and there was perineural invasion noted. I was hospitalized for nine days.
The day after surgery, I was up and walking. I walked whenever I could. When I got home, my goal was to walk around the block (1/2 mile) by my birthday, November 10. I beat the goal by two days. I continue to walk at least a couple of miles a day and when I am in Utah, hike in the mountains. I can’t stress how important it is to be active. Walking and hiking made a huge difference in my recovery from surgery and adjuvant treatment and contribute greatly to my overall quality of life.
At the end of December I had a port inserted and in January 2008, I began chemotherapy with single agent Gemzar. I had one cycle (three weekly treatments, then a week off), then switched to IMRT radiation with continuous 5FU infusion for 5 ˝ weeks. This was the most difficult part of treatment. The effects of radiation are cumulative and I did lose my appetite and a significant amount of weight. My husband and my dog insisted I keep up my walking routine. I was also crazy enough to go to work (5 hours of symphony rehearsal) the day after my last radiation treatment. I got about a month off to recover and resumed Gemzar in mid-April. I had three more cycles of Gemzar which were interrupted in May when a CT showed a possible metastases on my liver. I had ultrasound, then a PET scan and finally a liver biopsy, all of which came out negative for cancer. My final Gemzar treatment was July 23 and, of course, the next day I had 7 hours of opera rehearsal. Except for the week after the last treatment, when I experienced just about every side effect in the book, I did not have problems while on chemo. My blood counts dropped, although never low enough to postpone treatment, I was fatigued, I had some minor neuropathy, my hair thinned a bit, but I kept working and I kept walking.
Throughout the experience, I have done a number of proactive things to improve my chances for survival. I have always been fairly health conscious and open to alternative therapies and practices. In addition to walking regularly, I do yoga and meditation. I also have regular acupuncture and chiropractic treatments. Once a month, I get a massage. I have spent hours on the computer researching every aspect of the disease. I know this is not for everyone but I find that I am empowered by knowledge, even if it’s not good news. Just after I started chemo, I found a wonderful nutritionist, Dr. Jeanne Wallace. I continue to work with her for diet and supplement advice. My oncologist was skeptical at first, but when he saw how well I rebounded after radiation, he was willing to have me take supplements as long as I checked it out with him first.
As I write this, I am almost 27 months past diagnosis. My last CT scan was in June. I had a six month check up last week (blood work only) and was pronounced to be “in excellent health.” CA 19-9 is 8. I will see Dr. Chung again in June 2010.
Just after I learned I had cancer I wrote the following: Expect and hope for the best, Understand and prepare for the worst. In the meantime, Be proactive, Seize the day And do everything you possibly can to ensure a positive outcome! This continues to be my anti-cancer mantra. It got me through some really rough times. At the end of my visit with Dr, Chung last week, he said that he thinks my positive attitude is what has kept me going. I will add that I have been blessed many times over with wonderful family, caring friends, an incredible medical team and so many prayers from so many sources. Life is an amazing experience. I am filled with awe and gratitude that I continue to enjoy it…and I’m determined to enjoy it to the limit.