I lost my dad to pancreatic cancer on February 25, 1999. Four days after my 30th birthday. Everyone was terrified that he was going to die on my birthday but I was actually ok with it. The date on which on which he was going to die didn’t matter to me but the fact that he was dying did. He skipped my birthday and died on the birthday of one of my oldest friends from high school. Sorry about that Nikki. I know that sucked for you.
Here’s the thing about pancreatic cancer. It is an ugly, painful and unforgiving cancer and there is no cure. It is the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the Unites States and 10th worldwide. People with early pancreatic cancer usually do not show any warning signs and if they do, they are pretty varied. If caught soon enough and if the tumors have not spread outside the pancreas, the pancreas can be removed and survival is pretty good. This usually only happens in about 5% of cases. 95% of people diagnosed with this cancer will die within 5 years of diagnosis and out of those 80% will only make it 6 to 10 months. Most people don’t realize that it is that big of a killer.
My dad is only 63 years old in this picture. He looks like he is 80. This cancer sucks the life out of you very, very fast. He had no idea anything was wrong until he dropped 30lbs in less than 2 months. My dad fought for 2 years after his diagnosis. He endured a 6-hour surgery called the Whipple Procedure which actually extended his life almost a year longer than they estimated. He went through rounds of chemo and radiation at MD Anderson. When they said they couldn’t help him anymore, we found an experimental treatment program also at MD Anderson that would. After he exhausted his time at that one and they didn’t see any results, we found another one. He wasn’t about to give up. This one was the last one and it was the one that made the most progress. It actually made a dent in his tumors. He lost his battle about 6 months after that last treatment. I am a huge proponent of experiment therapy. They may not cure you but what they learn from your progress may help to find a cure for the future.
I was lucky enough to be able to travel back and forth from New Mexico to Austin quite easily for the last 9 months of his life and I was able to go to Las Vegas with him for his last experiment treatment. I think that watching my dad die of cancer was harder on him that it was on me. No parent wants their kids to see them in that condition. My dad was very proud and humble and he stayed that way until the bitter end. Sean and I along with my grandma were in New Mexico visiting and some of my dad’s childhood friends from El Paso were coming over to visit. He was so excited to see them. They had all kept in touch over the years but it had been awhile since they had seen each other. My dad was doing ok but he was having to use a wheelchair to get around. He was not about to let them see him in his current condition and “no way in hell” was he coming out in that wheelchair. These guys are good old boys who were ranchers so my dad put on his best pair of Wranglers, a pressed button down shirt, a belt with one of his county fair and livestock rodeo belt buckles, his Ostrich boots and I’m pretty sure he even got out his Stetson. When they all got there, he got up and walked to the door. My grandma made them all sandwiches just like when they were kids and they sat around the kitchen table telling stories. Sean and I decided to head out and be tourists so my dad could enjoy his time with his buddies. When we were leaving, he stood up, gave me a big hug and said “I love you.” That was the last time he was able to do that and I’ll never forget it.
More and more people are dying of pancreatic cancer. They haven’t figured out all the genetics yet but it has been linked to smoking, alcohol and obesity. Makes you think about the direction our population is headed with obesity and the increase in cancer overall. Here’s the thing, if there is a history of pancreatic cancer in your family, your chances of getting it automatically go up. Pancreatic cancer runs in a family when two or more first-degree relatives (parents, brothers, sisters, children) are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This is sometimes called familial pancreatic cancer. Families with three or more close relatives (first-degree relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, cousins) diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and with one relative diagnosed before age 50, are also considered to have familial pancreatic cancer.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that the risk of developing pancreatic cancer is increased four to five times for a person with one first-degree relative (parents, brothers, sisters, children) with pancreatic cancer, six to seven times for a person with two first-degree relatives, and 32 times for a person with three first-degree relatives with the disease. If you also have a family history of breast cancer, you chances go up. My grandfather also died from it and I have a first cousin who battled and beat a very rare type of breast cancer. I’m doing all I can to dodge that bullet. Genetic testing is now available and it’s the same as the BRAC test for breast cancer. I am going to have the BRAC done for breast cancer because there is a prevention plan in place for people who test high on the marker for developing breast cancer. If losing my boob means I beat cancer, then I can certainly live without them. At this time, I am not going to have it done for pancreatic cancer. Until there is something put in place to cut my chances by at least half, I’d rather not know. I will continue to do everything I can to keep it at bay. I refuse to live my life in fear of this disease.
If you fall into one of the categories for developing pancreatic cancer, here’s what you can do to help prevent it: don’t drink alcohol in excess, don’t smoke (my dad was a HEAVY smoker), if you do smoke, quit now. Being smoke free for a decade decreases your chances tremendously. Keep your weight healthy, eat a diet that consists of whole foods that consist of fresh vegetables and fruit, limit your consumption of red meat, exercise and do not drink sugary sodas. The common soft drink sweetener fructose has been linked to growth of pancreatic cancer cells. Take vitamin D. A long-term study found that people who consumed in the range of 300 to 449 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily had a 43% lower risk of pancreatic cancer than those who took less than 150 IU per day;150 IU is appreciably less than what was then, or is now, recommended.
Here are the warning signs to look out for:
– Pain in the upper abdomen that typically radiates to the back.
– Loss of appetite or nausea and vomiting.
– Significant weight loss.
– Painless jaundice.
– Trousseau sign, in which blood clots form spontaneously in the portal blood vessels, the deep veins of the extremities, or the superficial veins anywhere on the body, may be associated with pancreatic cancer.
– Diabetes mellitus, or elevated blood sugar levels. Many patients with pancreatic cancer develop diabetes months to even years before they are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, suggesting new onset diabetes in an elderly individual may be an early warning sign of pancreatic cancer.
– Clinical depression has been reported in association with pancreatic cancer, sometimes presenting before the cancer is diagnosed. However, the mechanism for this association is not known.
It has taken me a really long time to write this post. I recently went through a box of old pictures and I was bothered by what I saw. It’s not like I don’t remember all the crazy things I used to do and how I made some bad choices but it was right there IN MY FACE and it compelled me to write this. Hopefully at least one person will read this and makes a change in their life that somehow helps them live longer or shares this information with someone they know that might need it. Spread the word people! One of the reasons that they have yet to find a cure is because of funding. This disease is right behind breast cancer yet more people die from it.
Here’s a picture of my dad that will be more familiar to most of my friends who knew him. But no matter what, he smiled through the whole thing.