This is a very personal post for me. I’m usually a very private person, but sometimes information needs to be shared, to help others, educate, and increase awareness. I hope I can do just that with this story.
For those of you that haven’t seen all of my previous posts, earlier I shared with you the heartbreaking story of my mother’s fight against ovarian cancer. She fought her battles courageously, but the cancer was strong and the cancer was advanced. She lost her fight two years after being diagnosed.
Starting in August, my Dad had been dealing with a lingering pain in his abdomen and back that wouldn’t go away. Now my dad is one tough guy. He’s a Vietnam Vet, blue-collar worker by trade, and farmer in his heart. Obviously, something had to truly be bothering him in order to see a doctor. After a few hospitalizations with pancreatitis, eventual gall bladder surgery, numerous doctor visits, and copious tests, he was finally diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Yes, THAT cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the worst cancers to have (as if there is such a thing). The graph below consists of data I compiled from the internet – 5 year survival rates for patients with common cancers. As you can see, pancreatic cancer has the smallest 5 year survival rate, with 9%. According to Pancreatic.org, “These low survival rates are attributable to the fact that fewer than 20% of patients’ tumors are confined to the pancreas at the time of diagnosis; in most cases, the malignancy has already progressed to the point where surgical removal is impossible.”
Obviously, these are just statistics. Anyone can beat the odds. Nevertheless, getting the news that a loved one has stage 4 pancreatic cancer is like getting knifed in the gut. Stage 4 cancer is the most advanced stage, when cancer cells have spread into other organs or other parts of the body.
After hearing the news, your brain starts to go crazy: This shouldn’t happen to someone in my family! What caused this?How come we didn’t know the diagnosis sooner? How did the doctors miss this when he had pancreatitis? How far has it spread? I already lost one parent to cancer, how can I lose another to cancer again?
You stare down your computer, spending time learning about the disease. You do research. You learn about the surgical options, treatments, and survival rates. A lot of the information for pancreatic cancer isn’t very promising, leading you to get depressed. And for me, I’m not even the one suffering from it or having to go through it! I can’t imagine the mental and physical struggle that these patients go through.
Shortly after diagnosis (and months after the pain started), my Dad’s pain level kept increasing. His weight loss was becoming very obvious, he was easily agitated, and the light in his eyes was gone. He was hurting. His pain meds were increased, surgical options were dismissed (his cancer was too advanced) and chemotherapy and radiation were prescribed.
Before treatment started, his days were spent in bed, in agonizing pain. He didn’t eat because he couldn’t eat; simply thinking of eating made him nauseated; when he did eat, digestion worsened the already unbearable pain. He weakened from the cancer, but also from malnutrition and dehydration.
Visits to see him were at most 30 minutes. He tried to enjoy the visits but he was miserable. He turned inward. He couldn’t focus on anything but the pain. He was slipping away, mentally, physically, and spiritually. I was watching the cancer win. I cannot begin to tell you how many tears were shed.
As of now, half way through his first round of chemotherapy and finished with radiation, his is unbelievably pain-free. He is still on some strong pain meds, but much less than before. His quality of life is such that he can carry on conversations with others and feel as “normal” as possible. At his lowest, Dad was 180 lbs (he was 270 lbs before diagnosis), but now is up a few pounds because he can eat. (Small victories!) In addition, his tumor marker counts have dropped from 1,400 to 160. Obviously the chemo and radiation have killed a good portion of the cancer. However, he still suffers from side effects of the cancer and the chemo, tolerating them the best he can.
I have to admire my Dad’s courage, his fight, and his faith. Everyday, when he gets up, he never knows what the day will bring. Will it be a good day or a bad day? Will the pain come back? Will I get chemo today or will my blood counts be too low? Fortunately, he is under the care of good doctors who are aware of the delicate balancing act of chemotherapy. Killing the cancer cells means killing the healthy cells as well. Doctors want to kill the cancer, but not the patient. My Mom, after all, died from her chemotherapy working. There isn’t always a good balance.
So this blog post is a shout out to my Dad, and the other pancreatic cancer patients out there, whose lives are dictated by this terrible disease. Below, I included a graphic on the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. It pays to know the symptoms!
My Dad’s now incredibly grateful for his good days, grateful for his friends and family, and grateful for each breath. He’s even had a few great days lately, when he’s been able to leave the house and experience life outside the confines of his small world at home. When you have your health, you really have it all. Unfortunately, for most of us, we don’t appreciate this until it’s taken away.
So take care of your health, educate yourself and others, and join the fight to end this terrible disease called cancer.
Here’s hoping for a cure,
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