I read somewhere that the depth of your grief is equal to the depth of your love. The writer was conveying that the more you love someone the stronger the emotional pain will be when they are hurt, sick or gone. This concept makes sense to me, but it makes me incredibly uneasy because I’m a “lover.” I love life and the reason I love life is because I love the people in mine so much. Why would that make me uneasy? What could possibly be wrong with feeling so much joy? Well, if the depth of my grief is truly equal to the depth of my love, and I love the people closest to me completely and whole-heartedly, what will that do to my spirit when the unthinkable happens? On December 14th, 2015, the unthinkable happened. My world became darker than it had ever been before. My mom, the first person I ever loved and have loved the longest in this life, was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
“It’s bad.” Those were the only words my dad could muster when he called me at 10:00 pm that Monday night. He was scared, shocked and heartbroken. I didn’t need to see him. I could hear it in his voice. A CT scan showed a mass on my mom’s pancreas. After I hung up the phone, my husband hugged me and a heart-wrenching cry escaped my body. The news was inconceivable. Surreal. I honestly paused several times to make sure that what was happening was real. I’m not one of those people who thinks situations like this won’t happen to me, but it doesn’t matter because you CANNOT prepare yourself for shocking, unexpected news like this.
About 14 years ago, my mom had thought something was terribly wrong. It took a while for the doctors to figure it out but later discovered she would need her gall bladder removed. Fast forward seven years later to my mom in the fetal position on her bathroom floor with excruciating pain. This was another time she thought something was seriously wrong. Her doctor discovered a gall stone that ended up lodged in her bile duct. They removed it laparoscopically. After Thanksgiving, last year, my mom first thought she had the flu but when the nausea and stomach pain persisted, she thought maybe it was an ulcer or another gall stone that had been missed. When the pain and nausea became too much to bear she finally went to her GP not expecting this kind of diagnosis.
I’m embarrassed to admit how little I knew about cancer. There are significant differences in the various types of cancers but there are also significant differences within each type of cancer. I didn’t realize there is still so much learn to about pancreatic cancer. The first fact I learned that week is when there is a mass detected on a CT scan in this area that there is a 95% chance it’s pancreatic cancer. The risk factors for pancreatic cancer include: tobacco use, alcohol use, obesity, family history of pancreatic cancer. These didn’t match my mom. We were certain she had to be in the 5%.
I wish I could say that after being completely shell-shocked with that news that there weren’t anymore surprises. Not the case. My mom was scheduled to meet with the Pancreas & Biliary Multidisciplinary team at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colorado (over 4 hours away from their hometown) the following Tuesday. All week my mom was full of anti-nausea and pain meds to control the pain and nausea so she was incredibly lethargic and slept A LOT. I knew my mom had to be incredibly sick when we didn’t get at least five calls with her checking on us and telling us to “watch for deer” on our road trip home.
We arrived to my parents around 1:00 am Saturday morning so we didn’t see my mom until the following morning. I was in shock. We were all together just a few weeks before. How could she look so sick? Because of the severe nausea and pain, she had not been able to eat or drink much the last few weeks so she had lost at least 15 pounds. She was YELLOW. One of the symptoms is jaundice (for most people it’s the first symptom). With my mom, the jaundice came on fast. My husband and a close family friend insisted we not wait until Tuesday and take my mom to the emergency room in Denver right away. The multidisciplinary coordinator (and angel sent from Heaven), Cheryl, had included her cell number in her email regarding my mom’s appointment so I contacted her thinking there was no way a doctor would respond on the weekend but we had to at least try. Cheryl responded right away and said she would notify my mom’s team that we were on the way and make sure there was a room reserved for her when we arrived. She told me to try to keep her hydrated.
It was the longest car ride of my life. I was so scared for my mom. We all had celebrated Thanksgiving and our family Christmas only a few weeks before. She was smiling, laughing, cooking, playing with her grandbaby. Everything was normal and just a few weeks later she was a completely different person. She could barely function. It started going downhill at an alarming rate. I could not fathom how incredibly sick she became in such a short amount of time. I held her hand, watched her sleep and tried to keep her as comfortable as I could. I kept thinking about all the times I had been ill growing up and great my mom was at taking care of us. I wanted to be able to offer her that same kind of comfort.
ER Trip #1
They performed an ERCP (endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). The tumor was causing a blockage and bile was backing up into my mom’s liver. They inserted a stent so the bile could drain properly. They also took a sample of the tissue. The diagnosis was confirmed…adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. We were lucky though, they said. My mom’s tumor was resectable which means they could remove it with surgery. We were lucky because only 20% of patients with this diagnosis have the option of surgery to remove the tumor. Great, right? Yes, it truly was, BUT this surgery, known as the Whipple procedure, is one of the most complex surgeries to perform, has a very long recovery time and often results in complications.
Dr. Richard Schulick was the surgeon who took on my mom’s case. I can’t tell you how many times we heard from hospital staff, “If it was MY mom, he’s who I would want to perform THIS surgery.” I finally asked if they were paid to say that. I worked in advertising for over 10 years and THAT is a powerful statement. One you could easily use to take advantage of people…especially people in as vulnerable position as this. After doing my research I learned that Dr. Schulick is one of the most renowned pancreatic surgeons in the world and a leading expert at treating pancreatic cancer. On top of all that, he has incredible bedside manner. The Whipple procedure was scheduled for January 13th.
Dr. Schulick and his (now previous) resident, Amy, explained that chemotherapy and radiation is standard treatment even after the tumor is removed but that chemo and radiation were the “marathon” in our journey. The “iron man” was the surgery so we needed to take three weeks to work on getting my mom as healthy as possible. My mom felt relief almost immediately after the ERCP. Everything was going good until five days prior to surgery. She was again unable to eat or drink due to extreme pain and nausea and was running a high fever and shivering uncontrollably. A fever just days before a major operation is a bad thing. Again, on a Saturday night, I contacted Cheryl from my mom’s multidisciplinary team. She responded right away and advised we take her to the local ER. They could not determine what was causing the fever.
My mom’s surgery was scheduled for Wednesday in Denver so we left Monday morning even though we weren’t sure they were going to be able to operate due to the high fever that we were controlling with Tylenol. I had been pleading with my mom to eat just a little and drink as much as possible. At this point, she was very sick again. She kept telling me she was incredibly cold and wanted me to help her get warm so she didn’t have a shivering episode like two nights before. I was waking her up every couple hours to make her drink Gatorade or Ensure. I shouldn’t say “make.” She rarely fulfilled my request because she just couldn’t do it. At midnight, I woke her up to take her meds and give her a drink. We sat up and talked for a while. All of a sudden she had a very lost look on her face and started making random comments and started slurring her words. I took her temperature and it was 103. She asked me where we were and why were there? My heart dropped. I broke out in a sweat. I told myself I had to keep my shit together for my mom’s sake. I didn’t want to alarm her. I had no idea what was happening. Had the cancer spread to her brain? Was she having a stroke? I woke my dad and told him to get the car ready because we needed to get mom to the ER. I put her socks and shoes on while she sat there very confused. When she stood up, she could barely walk. My dad was already getting the car so I wrapped one of her arms around me and had her hold onto the wall with her other hand and we slowly made it to the elevator.
They admitted her and started fluids. They did multiple tests to try to figure out what was causing the fever, the confusion and the slurring. They decided they wanted to start her on antibiotics. She could barely speak or keep her eyes open but she kept telling them not to give her antibiotics because her surgery was scheduled for Wednesday and she needed to have the surgery. I stayed by her side, held her hand and asked her if she was ok…if there was anything I could do. She said she just wanted it to be over while barely able to keep her eyes open. She said it a few times and that scared me. I walked down the hall of the ER to try to find somewhere to go to be alone. I grabbed a cup to get ice and dropped to me knees and sobbed. They didn’t know what was happening to my mom. Was she ok? Was she dying? They couldn’t tell me anything. A nurse saw me and came over and gave me a hug. She grabbed my cup, filled it with water and asked if I was okay. Bless. Her. Heart.
At 1:00 am, I self-talked myself into not going into denial about what may be happening and made the decision to call my brother and my husband and tell them to come as soon as possible instead later the next day. I didn’t call my sister because she was flying the following day anyway and it wasn’t possible for her to arrive any sooner.
Until this diagnosis, I have spent very little time in hospitals. All the noisy machines can cause a lot anxiety to people who aren’t aware what the different noises mean especially when they come in right after an especially loud noise to attend to…whatever it is they’re attending to! I walked out to the gentleman at the desk on the cardiac floor (they put my mom there because the surgical floor was full) and asked with my eyes filled with tears what to do if I thought I was going to have a panic attack. He told me to follow him. He brought me to their breakroom, grabbed me a water and asked if I needed anything to eat. He talked to me for a while and told me I could stay there as long as I wanted. I assume he could get away with this because it was 3:00 am? Bless. HIS. Heart.
By the middle of the next morning, the fluids had done wonders for my mom and she was feeling much better and was alert. She couldn’t recall much of the previous day or night. Doctors from different departments kept coming in throughout the day to ask lots of questions. They ruled out a stroke and couldn’t find anything in the scans that gave them reason not to move forward with the surgery. At 4:00 pm, they told her they wanted to move forward with the surgery if she did. There was no hesitation. She DID. She wanted the tumor OUT.
They came for my mom at 6:00 am the next morning to prep her for surgery. The Whipple procedure, also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy, is a complicated and highly specialized operation that is used to remove the head of the pancreas, surrounding duodenum, end of the bile duct.and sometimes part of the stomach. I had dreaded the surgery. I talked to anyone and everyone about her surgery in hopes I could get first or second-hand information as to what we could expect. I came across a woman who had the surgery 20 years ago back when a very few people survived the operation. She had included her phone number as part of a cancer support group she had started. I called her and she talked to me for quite some time and offered me a lot of reassuring feedback. I’m guessing she’s an angel here on earthJ After seeing my mom in the shape she was in two days before the surgery, I was actually looking forward to it. It was the only hope for relieving her unimaginable pain. After they prepared her for surgery, they told us we could talk to her but she wouldn’t remember the conversation. We held her hand. I said, “You’re a tough bird, Momma.” She said, “I gotta look out for my birds.” I said, “Yeah, cause we’re your chicks.” And she replied, “You’re my peeps!” That was awesome.
The surgery took almost seven hours and was a success.
He’s a kind, caring, humble man as well and lets me hug him every time I see him for saving my mom’s life.
Just because someone looks all better, doesn’t mean they are all better.
There are some people say the most inappropriate things. You know how there are those mothers who like to tell first time moms-to-be their horror stories? There’s those type of people if you’re diagnosed with cancer as well.
People will distance themselves…even people you never would have expected but the people who are there lifting you (again, some you never would have expected) make up for those that disappear. Some people don’t know how to handle a crisis. That is about them. It’s not about you.
If you’re still with me and there’s nothing you can take away from our story thus far…please remember this:
There is ONE thing that every single human being has in common. There’s not a single one of us who is promised tomorrow. Be GRATEFUL for each day. Be HOPEFUL for many more. BELIEVE there’s a reason and have FAITH that God will help you through it.