When I asked my Facebook friends for nominations for the blog, someone suggested I talk to Chris. He had cancer once, he said.
Chris is a classic friend-of-a-friend friend, and we’ve only met a few times. But he’s hopelessly happy each time I see him, and now I know why.
He didn’t just have cancer. He had pancreatic cancer, a notorious killer.
And he beat it. Here’s how.
Tell me more about pancreatic cancer?
During the summer of 2004 I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer – a centimeter tumour at the head of my pancreas blocking a bile duct.
Before that diagnosis, I had never heard of pancreatic cancer. Many months later I was told that in the spectrum of cancers, pancreatic was at the far end of the ones you don’t want: Patrick Swayze recently passed away from it.
With most cancers, if you survive five years they say you are cured. With pancreatic that mark is 18 months.
By the time the symptoms appear, the cancer has usually spread everywhere. Most people diagnosed with pancreatic die within four months of diagnosis.
Only 1 in 10 people can get the operation that I received. The operation is called the “whipples.”
They remove the head of the pancreas, portion of the bile duct, the gallbladder, the duodenum, and part of the stomach.
With the whipples under my belt, I was told I had a 20 per cent chance of surviving five years.
My surgeon encouraged me to do chemotherapy, which I did. As he put it, treat it like a mop up after a major spill. If there are any tumor cells floating around, get rid of them.
How dire was your situation?
DIRE. But the good news was that I didn’t know it before the diagnosis. Ignorance is bliss.
The first symptom I had was severe back pain: the kind that you want to try and stretch out and press your hand into to try and stop. This pain caused me to lie awake at night, fortunately, for only a couple of nights.
Shortly after that, I became jaundiced. I have since learned that becoming jaundiced without pain is bad. I was jaundiced for about two months, waiting for numerous doctor appointments.
One appointment was with an ultrasound technician who turned out to be a retired doctor who told me I had a bit of sludge in my gallbladder.
I was told not to worry, and they made an appointment with a gastrointestinal doctor. I was apparently very lucky that I only had to wait three months for that appointment; usually it takes 6 months. With the jaundice, the bilirubin that was blocked by the bile duct blockage was seeping through my pores.
By the time I was admitted into the hospital after three attempts, my body was covered in sores from all of the scratching. I was so nauseous that I was popping Gravol like candy. I couldn’t get enough sleep. I lost 30 pounds, and was down to 140 pounds.
What goes through your head when you receive a diagnosis like that?
Believe it or not, relief. I was feeling so sick that the thought of feeling normal again was so comforting. That said, I vividly remember three hospital moments.
The first was following an endoscopy (stick a tube the size of your baby pinky with a camera, stents, and pincers down your throat to the obstruction: not pleasant).
They had just finished the procedure, and had told me that there was in fact a tumor in the bile duct, and it was more than likely cancerous. It was around 5:30 on a Friday evening at the Civic hospital, and I was left on a gurney waiting for a “porter” to take me back to my room.
The hospital was empty; there wasn’t a soul to be seen. I was just lying there on the gurney waiting, all alone, with only my thoughts.
I had just been told that I had cancer, and I was all alone.
There was a room next to me that had a phone. I called my wife at home to share the results with her. Only more silence. The silence was interrupted by the porter who came to take me to my room.
The second incident was after the whipple operation, I was still on morphine, and I had not slept in a couple of days. I had experienced bits and pieces of sleep, but nothing solid. I woke up after one of those fitful sleeps, and I was alone in my room and the light was so bright and the room was so white that there was an after-life glow in the room.
I could hear voices, but there was no one there. Someone had bought huge white lilies for my room which only punctuated the whiteness. I was sure I had died and I was ok; it felt alright. In fact, it was so OK that when my wife came into the room, I was actually disappointed that I had not entered the after-life.
The third incident was again post surgery. I was losing blood, so they sent me off for an MRI to see where I was leaking.
Again, I was feeling weak and again I was left alone in a hospital hallway; no one was around. It was such a lucid non-drugged induced moment.
For the first time I realized that I could die from this. What surprised me was that I was OK with that. There was a sense of serenity and peace that enveloped me. It actually surprised me; I will never forget this moment.
As I write this, I have just come to realize that all of these moments that I recall were when I was on my own.
The other interesting aspect of this illness was that so many people told me that they just didn’t understand how someone who watched their diet (low fat foods etc.), and kept in shape the way I did (I ran marathons) could become sick with such a grave disease.
I explained that I felt that, genetically, I was predisposed to having this cancer, and it was because I was in good shape that I was able to put up the battle.
What did you tell your kids?
I had four children at the time: 25, 24, 16, and 1. My wife had just found out she was pregnant with our second child. The children knew I was sick, and Sarah, my wife, told the children when it was finally diagnosed. I was too sick. They all rallied around me and were there for me.
Between the time that I was admitted into the hospital and I had my operation, I had a weekend pass to go home, and over that weekend I got married. It was such a rush job, that our wedding cake had a GI Joe and Barbie on the top, and the minister that married us (found him in the Pennysaver) used to own a sex shop in our area.
We have tried to doctor the pictures to remove the yellowness from the groom, but we were completely unsuccessful.
My wife is convinced that I do not remember the event; but is a very clear in my mind and one of the happiest days in my life.
The other interesting part of the illness was the amount of support we got from my wife’s relatives: they all live in England. Her mother came over immediately for a few weeks, followed by her father, brother, cousins, and aunts. For the next few months one of her relatives was living with us helping with everything. We could not have done it without them.
When you are down, you quickly realize who is there for you. I had numerous visits from friends as well, and really appreciated the visits and the gestures of home cooked meals that they often brought.
When did you know you were in the clear?
It’s odd because I never really feel like I’m in the clear. I know when I am feeling 100 per cent (which I do 99.9 per cent of the time), you get this “Oh well if I die from this then that’s OK” flippant attitude. But when I’m not feeling well or there’s an odd discomfort (probably gas), I wonder if the cancer has returned, and another battle is on its way.
The other oddity is that I really only felt like I had cancer for about a week – the length of time from when I was diagnosed until the time that the tumor was removed.
How has it changed your outlook on life??
I was definitely more of workaholic pre-cancer. I don’t know whether age or the cancer changed that for me, but I now have more “me” time. I know my wife would be rolling her eyes right now, as she thinks I am still doing too much, but I know it’s a lot less.
My horizon is also shorter. I don’t believe that I will be here for many more decades, and so I live my life a little more like there is no tomorrow, but always pace myself to ensure that I can enjoy many, many, many more tomorrows.
My religion has changed as well. I was brought up a Roman Catholic, and up until my teen years went to church every Sunday. I believed. Now, I am less certain. I think my belief has been partially affected by age, and some by my shorter horizon. I find that I am less certain of the after life; why are we so special that we feel we are owed a life after this one?
In any event, in a crisis, I still fall back to pleading and negotiating with God. I remember talking to my dad many years ago, and when I asked him why he kept going to church every Sunday when he was questioning his own beliefs, he said it was insurance.
But even so, I am the Miracle Man. Based on the odds, I should not be here. Whenever possible, I enjoy sharing my experiences with others who may also be going through their own cancer challenges. I try to let them know that there is hope, and I am evidence of it.
Let the miracle continue!