For the first 48 years of my life, I was mostly healthy. I saw a doctor for the typical yearly checkups, mamograms and such. Otherwise I rarely had a cold. After turning 49, I started having lots of digestive problems. Then I started having pain in my stomach which kept me up at night sometimes, and I just didn't feel well in general, so I went to the doctor for help. He thought it was ulcers or acid reflux and recommended the usual round of tests. A few days after completing an upper GI series, I noticed my skin was turning yellow. This got me back to the doctors office in a hurry. He ordered complete blood work, including tests for hepatitis. A couple of days passed, and I was still yellow but with red splotches all over and I itched unbearably. I had also become very weak. I was referred to a dermatologist who thought a reaction to medication I had started taking for acid reflux was the source of the itching. He gave me antihistamines and some cream to help dry up the splotches. Nothing helped the itching. When the blood work results came in the following week, the doctor called me and ordered an emergency admission to the hospital. I was told at first I was in danger of my gallbladder rupturing and the night I was admitted to the hospital, I was referred to a surgeon. More tests were done the next morning. The surgeon I had first spoken with told me he was referring me to a specialist for more tests. They had determined it was not a problem with my gallbladder. November 2002, the specialist told my husband and I that I had a tumor in the pancreas blocking the biliary duct system. He said it was most likely cancer, and most often these situations were too advanced when they show up to do anything about it. From admission to the hospital to diagnosis took three days. More tests were done to determine if I was a candidate for surgery. As it turned out, I was.
On November 27, 2002 I had a Whipple procedure. We were lucky to have a good hospital within three miles of our home. Our local hospital had surgeons who had done Whipple procedures and I felt very comfortable with them. Everyone involved in my care, the surgical team and the hospital staff were excellent. They were very kind and caring to my husband who was devastated when we got the news. I came through the surgery OK, and was told that I had early stage pancreatic cancer. They found no indication of the tumor having spread to other organs. Lymph biopsies were clear. The surgeon felt confident she had been able to remove the tumor completely and saw no need to put me through chemo or radiation treatments. I agreed and saw no reason to seek a second opinion. I was in the hospital for ten days from surgery through discharge. Doctors are wonderful resources, at least mine were. They gave me the best advice they could offer, and lots of information. Before the operation, the surgeon told me I could find more information on PC and Whipple procedures on the internet but also warned me to pay attention to the source of the info since much of it was negative. Surgery was scheduled within a week of diagnosis. I deliberately chose not to do internet research before surgery. Since surgery was the only curative option available, I decided the best approach was to focus on preparation and try to stay positive. Following surgery, we did lots of research. Information on PC and experiences of people with PC are often bleak stories, but there are positive stories and more importantly, useful information which can help with the day to day coping of life after cancer surgery.
I was 50 years old when diagnosed with PC. I had never smoked, I drank wine with dinner, I exercised regularly, was not overweight, and had followed a mostly vegetarian diet for years. This is how I lived because I enjoyed it, not because I was afraid of getting sick. The doctors were a little surprised at my lifestyle. The first thing I was asked before they cleared the door to my room was how long had I smoked. But in the end none of it mattered since the bottom line was that I was very sick. So after diagnosis, I never dwelled on 'why me'. I like to think I have a good sense of humor. I love life. I embrace its' gifts and challenges and I've lived long enough to know it's not all sunny days. I know death is part of life and we're all going to leave this world sooner or later, but when when I was diagnosed with PC I was truly shocked. My family is mostly long lived. No history of cancer, I am the first. The doctors were blunt about what I faced and each of them carefully repeated the statistics, which were dreadful.
The year following surgery, I went for an annual checkup with the gynecologist I have seen for the past 15 years. I spoke to her of the mental challenge of cancer survival. Her advice has been invaluable to me. She said we all begin dying the moment we are born, some of us die younger than others. She told me to stop reading statistics. She reminded me that some of the published studies are outdated and I should ask myself what good does reading information that causes me to feel depressed bring me. She knew I was doing what I could to stay healthy physically and mentally. Keep doing that, and all the rest she said, give to God.
There are physical changes from the surgery that are of course permanent. I am diabetic. Luckily, I can control it with diet and exercise. I take pancreatic enzymes with meals and with few exceptions, I can eat anything I could before surgery. Peanuts give me problems now. The surgical incision has stayed very sensitive although it is much better now than the first couple years. Otherwise I feel quite well most days, and I remain physically active. I am alive and the doctors are amazed. When thoughts of statistics bug me now, I stop and think, today I feel well. I will live today. Tomorrow is unknowable. This works for me most of the time.
I had worked with one company for 25 years when I had surgery. On my 26th anniversary, I decided to retire. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made and I am grateful it was an option open to me. Now instead of facing the morning traffic grind, my husband and I take a long walk. Retiring gave me time to rediscover my childhood love of gardening. For the first couple years following surgery, gardening was physically challenging. I think it was very important to my recovery. When I am in the garden, time goes away. I relax and find my only thoughts are of what's going on in the garden. I believe finding something you love doing that lets your mind find a quiet place heals you. It may not cure you, but healing can take place in quiet moments.
Finally, there is hope. If your PC is found at an early stage and you can have surgery, you can have good quality of life following treatment.
There are so few positive stories from people with pancreatic cancer, I think people who are diagnosed with it often feel very alone. This is what prompted me to share my story even though I am a very private person. If you are reading this, you may be looking for hope for yourself or someone you love. I wish you well and hope my story helps you.