On June 4, 2010, we got life-changing news. My mom….my biggest cheerleader, confidant (aside from Hubz) and one of my best friends, was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. She was 65 years old. Up until 3 weeks prior to her diagnosis, she had been a very active, and spry 60-something. She was involved in her daughters’ lives, as well as very present with her 3 grandsons. She was active in several groups around her town..and she was loved by many.
On May 17, 2010, my mom was feeling miserable. She went to the doctor for a blood draw, because she just couldn’t shake a terrible lower respiratory infection. She was having trouble breathing, she was hoarse, she was shaky and her balance was off. My dad took her to the Urgent Care for the blood draw. Her blood sugar was so high that they rushed her from the Urgent Care to the hospital ER. They told my dad that she was ill. She was gravely ill, to be correct. Truthfully, she was terminally ill, but we weren’t aware of that yet. The next day, once they got her some insulin and her blood sugars started to stabilize, they took more blood and tried to figure out what was happening. We all rushed to be at her side. My sisters and Hubz took the day off from work, and we 3 sisters went to support our mom. She looked pale. She slumped in her bed. She was not quite herself. Despite that, she tried to assuage our unease…always trying to be positive.
That Wednesday they catheterized her. Her kidneys were shutting down. They couldn’t figure out what the cause was quite yet. My dad, who is not the best communicator or listener, told us a blood specialist had been brought into her case. Later, we found out, Dr. K was an oncologist. But we didn’t know that…not yet. So really, the doctors and nurses knew, 2 days into her hospitalization, that something just.wasn’t.right. They had seen “something” on a scan of her kidneys..it was a spot on her liver. Thursday night my mom went in for a CT scan. She called me, thinking she had dialed my sister. We chatted briefly…she was distracted and a little confused. I didn’t realize that would be our last typical conversation….
Friday morning, May 21, I had just gotten Jake on his kindergarten bus and Tate onto his preschool bus. I was sitting on the floor playing with Cole. The phone rang. My sister, Auntie K, was on the line. “Lisa….Mom had a stroke last night.” I swore….”What the F#@$!”. I am not big on profanity…but seriously…what the?!! I called Hubz. He came home from work so that I could go to the hospital. I was beside myself. I was scared. And nervous. And angry…Oh, I was angry.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare someone for seeing a parent lying in a hospital bed, paralyzed on an entire side of their body. My mom, my intelligent, well-spoken, active mother, was slurring her words, relatively motionless in bed, and looked so lost. The spark that was usually in her eyes was gone. I won’t forget that. In that moment, I transitioned from child to caregiver. I went from needing and wanting her to take care of me to knowing she needed us to take care of her. We told her we’d fight to get her better. We’d get her using her limbs again.
There was activity all over her room. My sisters and me. My dad. The nurses and doctors. Specialists, too. The GI specialist came in to tell my mom that they found a mass in her liver. It was small, and might not be anything. But we all knew…it was something. The nutritionist came in to talk to the family about her new diabetic diet. The strange thing is, that with all of my mom’s diets, she really was doing ok..and she didn’t like a lot of the super sweet stuff–except for chocolate.
The next week is a blur of doctors, tests, blood draws, and watching Mom try to recover. She had MRI’s, a biopsy, and some other exams. My aunt came down from Wisconsin to be with her. My mom was honest with her about her anger. She tried to shelter us girls from it. But we knew…and just holding her hands, and trying to feed her the disgustingly thickened concoctions so that she could feel it and swallow, well, it was awful. One night while Auntie K and I were at her bedside, Mom looked at us, and her filter completely stripped due to the stroke, she spoke. “It’s hard seeing your mom age right before your eyes….isn’t it?” Yes, oh my GOD yes….it was heart wrenching. Heart breaking. Scary. Anger-inspiring.
The Memorial Day holiday weekend came and went. The results of her biopsies were hung up due to the holiday. We sat around waiting…wondering. Mom got transferred to the rehabilitation floor. That was surreal. She was one of the youngest people up there. Everyone else was significantly older…with only a few in her age range due to complete knee or hip replacements. The stroke survivors were at least 10 years my mom’s senior. But we came and supported her…cheered her on as she struggled to regain some dignity and ability.
On June 3, 2010 we got news about cancer. She had Endometrial Cancer. Because of her stroke, the doctors were trying to figure out what to do about her treatment. She wasn’t strong enough, yet, for any surgery….but Endometrial Cancer was treatable. In many cases, Endometrial Cancer is curable…but we weren’t sure what we were dealing with from the liver. It is rare for Endometrial Cancer to spread to the liver. So we waited.
On June 4th, my boys had their last day of school. In a haze, I helped deliver the appreciation gift to Jake’s teacher. My little guy was wrapping up kindergarten!! And Tate was moving up to 4 year old preschool in the fall. But I couldn’t think about that. I had to think about Mom…and her illness. And how we could get her stronger and get her home. We were at home, and my sister and her husband were heading over. When they got there, my sister asked if I had talked to Mom. I had not. She had been in therapy during the day, and I was busy with the 3 boys. My sister said they got the results back from the liver. She thought I knew. I did not. She told me, “Lis….it’s Pancreatic Cancer.” I let out a moan. Or a groan. Or both. I felt like I was falling. No, no, no….not that. No….
See, my friend’s dad had passed away 2 1/2 years prior from Pancreatic Cancer. His was Stage 4, and he only lived 2 months from the date of his diagnosis. TWO MONTHS. He had been strong. And fit. And active. And then *poof* He was gone. I knew what this meant. Mom was dying. The cancer was in her liver. It had metastacized. This was awful. Terrible. My world was crumbling down. But that did not mean that I wouldn’t fight. No. I was tenacious. So was my mom. Our whole family was a bunch of scrappers. We wouldn’t let Mom go down without a good fight.
Later in June, on the 21st, our family met with the oncologist. My sisters and I took Mom there. My dad called in from work–he just couldn’t be there in person. At the time I couldn’t understand it…but now I know that he was scared and angry and hurting…and being there to get the news in person would have finished him. So he was on a conference call. In the doctor’s office, the kind and gentle oncologist let us know it was Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer. It was not curable, but it was treatable. She wanted to do chemotherapy. Mom, who had never wanted to do chemo in the past agreed to do the chemo. For us. To be there just a little longer for us. Even with chemo, and possibly some radiation treatments, Mom’s prognosis was 6-8 months. 6-8 months. In that moment, we realized just how little time we had left…and how precious every moment with Mom would be. We spent a few moments asking questions and getting information about treatment and care.
Less than three months later, on September 16, 2010, my mom lost her battle with Pancreatic Cancer. Too many people still succumb to this cancer. Pancreatic Cancer is lethal. The 5-year survival rate is only 6%..and it has stayed in the single digits for quite some time. This is the lowest survival rate among all major cancers. This year, alone, more than 37,000 Americans will succumb to Pancreatic Cancer, while nearly 44,000 more will be diagnosed. According to a recent report, the number of Pancreatic Cancer deaths is on the rise, and it is anticipated to become the second largest cancer killer in the U.S. by 2020, and possibly as early as 2015.
10 years ago, I didn’t really know anyone or had heard of anyone who had Pancreatic Cancer. Today, several celebrities have come out publicly with their battles. We have honored some terrific people–Patrick Swayze, Randy Pausch, Steve Jobs, and Sally Ride, to name a few, who have lost their battle. Others are trying to fight it courageously. With every ounce of energy they have left.
No one deserves this. It is a viscous, aggressive disease. More funding is needed. More research is needed. We need to know it. Fight it. End it. Please visit Pancan.org for more in-depth information and resources. Know the signs and risks. Be an advocate or volunteer. Fight for better screening, medicine and procedures to end the devastation it causes. Currently, most Pancreatic Cancer cases aren’t discovered until the cancer has spread…and usually to other vital organs…and by then, it is often too late for recovery.
Also, I encourage you to wear purple this month….in honor of those fighting, those who survived and kicked Pancreatic Cancer’s a$$, and for those who lost their courageous battle. Those like my mom. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her…