Day One: Life With Cancer

Life happens when we are busy making other plans.
— Allen Saunders

It was June 2006 and I had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My life up to this point had been highly active, fun, fulfilling, meaningful, and unpredictable with the expected highs and lows. I am blessed with the trait of decisiveness and have had the ability to make decisions in a timely manner. Of course, not all of them have proven to be successful, but that is another story!

Despite the fact that I was in complete shock and terrified after my diagnosis, I was not paralyzed with fear. Deciding fairly quickly to start treatment with my UCLA doctor was a comfortable decision. Knowing many would have spent more time analyzing doctors, institutions, statistics, patient stories, and so much more – I could not allow any comparison to others with the obvious sense of urgency. I had no time to waste. The clock was ticking and my time on earth was limited. 

These were unchartered waters. I felt like an actress playing a part in a role I had never rehearsed for. Everything about this world was completely foreign to me. After all, cancer was something that happened to others. I barely knew what the pancreas did and certainly did not know about the duodenum where the cancer had spread, in addition to some lymph nodes. I asked my doctor, what could I have done differently. He said….”Nothing."

A pill form of chemotherapy was prescribed, which was simple and painless for a few weeks. My friends know that I have a truck driver’s appetite and dining is one of the most pleasurable experiences for me. However, at this point, I had a complete lack of appetite and my stomach pains had progressed to an excruciating level, which landed me in the hospital. I had a biliary obstruction and I had turned jaundice. I was rushed into surgery, awakening hours later in the recovery room. Groggy, in agonizing pain and unable to move, the surgeon was hovering over the bed talking to me in a very calm and nurturing tone. The surgery had been unsuccessful, they wanted to leave me in recovery for a few hours and perform a second surgery. Of course, this was unintelligible to me and I couldn’t understand where I was, let alone the magnitude of what he was suggesting. I happily relied on my husband's decision that this was the right thing to do.

The next thing I remembered was waking up in surgery, feeling ice cold and immense pain in my lower body. I heard what sounded like muffled voices and tried to comprehend what was happening. I managed to say, “I am freezing cold and I feel what you are doing.” A female voice answered, “I am taking a needle in a tube and pulling it through your liver and I can’t give you anymore anesthesia.” Now, this was more information than I wanted!

The second time in recovery, the surgeon returned to say, “If you were my wife or my sister, I would insist you have the Whipple surgery and as soon as possible.” That was a Tuesday. I never left the hospital and had the Whipple surgery three days later.   

Other than a minor surgery in 1996, which happily turned out to be negative for any type of cancer, I have never been in the hospital. I was so naive; I called a girlfriend and asked her if she would buy me a pretty nightgown to wear for my stay in the hospital! My husband Paul was very supportive and slept in a cot next to my hospital bed for the next three nights following the Whipple surgery. The first night was a fog of asking myself, was this really happening? I could not move my body in any way and as many of you have experienced, there is nothing comfortable about a hospital bed! In the wee hours of the morning a nurse came in and commented that she was “so tired and couldn’t find the compression leg wraps.” This was required for my legs to stimulate circulation. I was alarmed as she kept commenting on the long day she experienced and didn’t know where to find these compression devices. She finally located them and gave them to the next nurse to put on my legs. This nurse said she was “exhausted and didn’t know if she could put them on.” Now I was really concerned. Instead of waking up Paul, I asked how I could help.  What was I thinking?! I could not even sit up, let alone lean over and pull something up over my legs. She did do what was required, but I was so worried about what was scheduled next and could not sleep for fear something would be overlooked. 

Bob Bitchin once said, “Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.” It was not easy to think of this as an adventure!

Laurie MacCaskill