A Few Critical Things That Helped Me Survive Pancreatic Cancer
At the age of 55, I was in perfect health and terrific physical shape. One day I experienced a very sharp, intense lightning bolt of pain throughout my entire body. It only lasted for about five seconds, but it transitioned into a nagging back pain.
I immediately went to see a doctor, but was sent home with diagnoses of gas, and again with a pulled muscle. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when the pain didn’t go away and I began losing weight that I returned to the doctor, insisting on more tests. Ultimately, after an advanced endoscopy and a colonoscopy, did I hear the words that would change my life forever:
“Laurie, you have pancreatic cancer.”
At that point, the pancreatic adenocarcinoma was stage III and had already spread to my duodenum and lymph nodes. After over three years of chemotherapy, multiple surgeries (including the Whipple, which is considered the most complicated abdominal surgery in existence), numerous complications, complex therapies, insurmountable side effects, and too many emergency room visits to count, I was told the treatment was no longer effective and I had three to six months to live.
I was determined to keep fighting and found another doctor through the recommendation of good friends. He started me on an IV chemotherapy drug. This treatment would require me to come to the hospital every day, twice a day, for thirty days, with an IV administered for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening.
I figured if I only had three months to live, I most definitely did not want to spend them in a hospital. I asked my doctor if I could learn to administer the treatment myself so I could continue living my life, stay active and do the things I loved — like riding my bike in the mountains of Colorado.
The treatment was successful, and today I am cancer-free, feeling great, and have a new mission to help others survive.
Throughout my journey I was tested and pushed to my physical and emotional limits, but I learned a lot about this disease and myself, including some critical things I feel helped me survive. I also gained knowledge I want to share with others to help them.
How to detect signs and symptoms.
When I was diagnosed, I barely knew what the pancreas was. As with anything, knowledge is power, so educating yourself, friends and family can help increase the survival rate of the toughest cancer in the world.
Unfortunately, there are no detection markers for pancreatic cancer, so being aware of the risks and symptoms are critical. With pancreatic cancer, so many of the symptoms are similar to conditions that are less serious, which is why it is often misdiagnosed. These symptoms include lower back pain, nausea, indigestion, bloating, and unexplained weight loss. Some risk factors are pancreatitis, family history of pancreatic cancer, on-set diabetes, overweight, age, and smoking.
Pancan.org has a great test you can take to help identify these, and you know your body better than anybody else, so if you have unexplained symptoms and they persist or are they are there for unexplained reasons, go see a doctor!
How to be a better patient — things to track, records to keep, questions to ask.
Another thing I learned (and I cannot stress how important it is) is taking really good, thorough notes — what doctor you went to, what hospital, what the nurse’s name was, etc.
I kept everything in a notebook and brought it to every appointment. Track all of your medications — the names, how many milligrams you are taking, and the side effects. Ask for your test results on site. If I got a scan or blood work, I would always ask for two copies of the results — one for myself and an extra in case I needed to send it to another doctor. Doctors’ offices get busy, so calling back to get them doesn’t always work.
The average amount of time a doctor spends with patients is nine to 15 minutes, so you want to maximize that time.
Be clear and concise.
Become a model patient and have the information to inform and educate the doctor about your situation.
This will lead to better communication, a more personal relationship, and most importantly, it will empower you!
During chemo, there is such thing as chemo brain — you are scared, overwhelmed and emotional and may miss things — so take somebody with you if you can to help take notes.
How to stay happy and keep going in times of illness.
Mindset and attitude is what got me through this chapter of my life.
Yes, you have to accept a new normal and do things differently, but you can control how you think, and I knew this was a chapter — not the whole story.
It is really important to identify your mood — ask yourself questions like: “Why am I feeling sad?”and “Why am I feeling depressed?” Allow yourself the pity party for a little bit, but know the way you think triggers the way you feel.
When I would get to those dark places, I knew I had to get out of the negative mindset. It’s all about shifting your mood, and you can do this through meditating, prayer, physical activity, listening to music, watching your favorite movie, spending time with friends — whatever it is that takes the focus off of you, the pain, the diseases — and shifts the mood to make you feel better and get to a space that puts you in a different state of mind.
A gratitude journal kept me going during my fight. Jot down three things daily that occurred and made you grateful that you might have taken for granted in your old life. Reading them at the end of the week and reflecting gave me feelings of hope. Learn to celebrate the small accomplishments — then you don’t feel hopeless or helpless.
I want patients to know there is hope. They don’t have to give up just because they’ve been diagnosed. And there is a way to live with cancer.
We can’t do anything about the width or the length of our lives, but we can do something about its depth.
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