I would like to think that pancreatic cancer is in my past, but I know that with this disease there are no guarantees. So, I’m living my life with as much enthusiasm and compassion as possible.
I’ve been health conscious all my life. I have never smoked, I eat a healthy diet, and I have maintained a near-daily exercise routine since I was 20. I’m also steadfast about keeping yearly medical checkups and screenings. So when I felt a sharp, lightning-bolt of pain that went from the top of my head down to my toes and nearly knocked me out, I became alarmed. But the stabbing pain left as quickly as it had come, and the residual pain concentrated in the lower right side of my back was more annoying than debilitating. Still, I knew it wasn’t something I should ignore.
I saw several doctors and got a variety of diagnoses. After looking at an x-ray, one doctor said that I had gas and needed an enema. I knew that wasn’t the problem, but I did as I was told. The pain persisted. Another doctor told me I had pulled a muscle exercising and should take a few days off from the gym. I knew that wasn’t true either, but again, I did as I was told and stopped exercising. The pain remained, and now I was also losing a bit of weight. I’m a small person—normally just 105 pounds—so that didn’t sound any immediate alarms.
All my tests came back negative. Nothing was wrong, I was assured.
But I know my body, and I knew something was wrong. After a colonoscopy and advanced endoscopy screening, I was given a diagnosis of stage III pancreatic cancer. The news was so terrifying, I told the doctor he had the wrong patient’s file; I couldn’t possibly have pancreatic cancer. As far as I knew, pancreatic cancer is a death sentence.
I was prescribed capecitabine but had to have emergency surgery. The surgery was unsuccessful, and a few days later I had a Whipple procedure to remove the head of the pancreas and nearby lymph nodes for biopsy. Because the cancer had spread to the duodenum and several lymph nodes, I was prescribed an aggressive regimen of various combinations of chemotherapy that included bevacizumab (Avastin), fluorouracil, oxaliplatin, cetuximab (Erbitux), paclitaxel, gemcitibine, and nab-paclitaxel (Abraxane).
I was on chemotherapy for 3 years, and the experience was daunting. I lost my hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows. There were days I was so fatigued and in pain I couldn’t get out of bed. Despite the grueling treatment, I refused to believe that my life was over.
It has been 8 years since my diagnosis, and I would like to think that pancreatic cancer is in my past, but I know that with this disease there are no guarantees. So, I’m living my life with as much enthusiasm and compassion as possible.
I became a volunteer for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and I am now Chair of its National Board of Directors. I reach out to other pancreatic cancer survivors and try to provide a support system for them. I think I’m making a difference in their lives. I know they are making a difference in mine.
Living in the Moment
When you get a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, you are filled with fear. Having a supportive husband by my side and an empathetic oncology team monitoring my progress got me through the worst of that time.
Now I appreciate every moment of each day and try not to project too far into the future. I don’t know if I am cured of my cancer, but whether I live only another 3 months or 30 more years, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. Having cancer has given me so much more than it could ever take away. ■
Laurie MacCaskill is Chair of the National Board of Directors of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and advocates for increased federal research funding for pancreatic cancer. She and her husband Paul divide their time between Los Angeles and Aspen, Colorado.