Living with cancer has given me an insight into life that I didn’t have before. While I still get nervous every 6 months as the date approaches for a new scan that will tell me whether the cancer is still in check, I generally feel very much at peace.
I found out that I had stage III pancreatic cancer on Valentine’s Day in 2011, but I think the disease may have been brewing for a long time. For 19 years, I had experienced intermittent pain in the right upper quadrant of my abdomen. I had gallbladder surgery to relieve a bile duct obstruction, which my doctors said was the source of the pain, but a week after the surgery the pain was back. Abdominal ultrasounds showed some scar tissue, but everyone assured me it wasn’t serious.
Still, I had a nagging feeling something wasn’t right. I knew that my aunt had died of pancreatic cancer just 2 months after being diagnosed, and I always felt anxious about having a family history of such a deadly cancer. Finally, right before Christmas in 2010, the cancer began to show itself. I had severe flu-like symptoms and nonstop vomiting for 12 hours that left me so sick and fatigued it was difficult to participate in our family’s holiday plans. Even after the vomiting subsided, I had lingering nausea and I became jaundiced.
As soon as the holidays were over, I made an appointment to see my gastroenterologist. A CT scan showed another blockage in the bile duct. I was so poisoned by bilirubin, I had to be hospitalized for 8 days. Subsequent biopsies of a mass in the bile duct showed that I had pancreatic cancer.
Although the news was devastating, I clung to the fact that my tumor was borderline resectable, and that I would be a good candidate for the Whipple procedure once the tumor was reduced in size with chemotherapy and radiation. I had 6 months of gemcitabine chemotherapy, followed by 25 rounds of radiation therapy. In October of 2011, I had the surgery and additional cycles of chemotherapy, and so far, my cancer remains in remission.
Although having cancer turned my life upside down, the experience hasn’t been all bad. I was working part-time as a hairdresser before my diagnosis, and now I relish being a full-time mom to my two children—a daughter, 16, and a son, 5. Because my son is adopted, I feel an even greater responsibility to do everything I can to stay alive and be here to raise him. The experience has also brought my husband and me closer together.
I was always an anxious person, but once I got my cancer diagnosis I learned to rely more on my faith, and I no longer have any fear. I certainly don’t want to die, but I’m not afraid of death and that’s a wonderful feeling. My biggest worry is not being here for my children and husband.
Having a life-threatening disease has also taught me to take more control of my life and to be more assertive when it comes to my care. I was unhappy with the first oncologist I saw because he didn’t always present information in the most positive light, so I sought out another opinion. It isn’t that I was looking for rosy answers. I just wanted to feel like he was going to do everything in his power to fight for me.
My new oncologist is my partner in decisions about my care and welcomes my questions, which gives me confidence. It also helps that not only do I respect him, but he respects me. Knowing that has made all the difference in my ability to cope with cancer.
Living with cancer has given me an insight into life that I didn’t have before. While I still get nervous every 6 months as the date approaches for a new scan that will tell me whether the cancer is still in check, I generally feel very much at peace. I know it’s a cliché, but I didn’t realize what a great life I had until I was facing this terrible cancer. Now, everything is in perspective and I know I’ll get through whatever difficulties may lie ahead.
The love I feel from my family and friends, and the support I get from my medical team have given me a new appreciation for life and an acceptance of mortality that I didn’t have before. How lucky I am to have such an abundance of love and unshakeable faith. ■
Margaret O’Donnell lives in Rochester Hills, Michigan.