Saturday, November 27, 2010

November: Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month

In October, I wrote about October being the Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Perhaps a little preachy, but things that I felt I must say. The irony of being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2007 and then undergoing a double mastectomy in October of 2007 is not lost on me. And my dear Twigs friends had to list listen to a little, but also had the rare opportunity to reach in a pink bag to feel what a prosthetic breast feels like. I am usually bold and out there, but so many of these diseases are so hushed. Take care of yourself or you can have what's in the pink bag.

At last, to the point. November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. I imagine that very few even know where their pancreas is or what it does. No matter..... but you have to have one to live. This cancer is often diagnosed after the disease has progressed to the extent that no "traditional medical options" are available. The symptoms can be vague, easily thought to be some other ailment, so many other diagnosis may be given before the inevitable Big C diagnosis is made. Detected very early, like many cancers, there is a high cure rate if diagnosed early. Otherwise, it is highly lethal, with not much time between diagnosis and death. And much of that time is extremely unpleasant. (Disclaimer: Be careful what sites you check out. It's always best to stick with major clinics or hospitals and avoid Uncle Joe's)

Not much time typically passes from a progressed pancreatic cancer diagnosis to death. Even those final days, however many there are, may completely rob the person (who is being called a patient now because they no longer are a person) of energy, mobility, controlled pain. We are not talking a very lengthy period. Sometimes it is days, or weeks, or a few months. But from what I understand, the desire to "be done" can come pretty quickly.

Movies always allow those dying cancer people to look pretty good to the end. To desire visitors and welcome them warmly. No one is crying from pain, vomiting, curled in the fetal position, hoping, praying, that in a few minutes they will feel a bit better, at least enough to acknowledge the visitors. We the living need to go see our dying loved ones. It makes sense. But it can be so incredibly hard on the person being visited. This is the last look, the last words, the last opportunity to heal old wounds or correct any grievances.

And then it is done. The living cry and mourn, the dying keep dying. I have been told that death from pancreatic cancer can be the answer to prayers.

My Aunt Sally, my Mother's sister, courageously fought pancreatic cancer. The time between diagnosis and death was not lengthy. She was able to wrap up a few projects. Her daughter, my cousin Anne, and she looked at old and not-so-old pictures, and she told Anne all about who was there, where there was, and why the pictures still mattered. Scrapbooks and photo albums were made. I think (although I am not totally sure) that I heard a story of a lot of pictures ending up in the recycle bin. Time goes by and we can't remember who it was we were so happily drinking margaritas with in that particular photo.....

My Uncle Hugh, her one and only husband, quickly had renovated their home to allow my Aunt Sally to remain on the main floor and avoid the challenge of the stairs. They were in for a fight! After all, she had survived breast cancer and a double mastectomy, then major reconstruction surgery, so the ups and downs of the cancer race were already familiar. It is those who are distanced by a few degrees of separation that think and say things about a definite death sentence, that a person will never make it, and even take a closer look in the china hutch. The cancer warrior fights until there is no fight left, regardless of how long that may be.

I have lit a candle every day this month in honor of my Aunt, who I was so happily named after. I don't have any way of making sense of any of it. I just know it really sucks. There had been some distance among my Mother and her siblings, so my relationship with my Aunt had not progressed past my teens. But ultimately what matters most is there was love, honor, and respect between the two sisters in April 1970 that I was born as Sally and christened as Sally. What an honor that is. Her dignity in death reminds me that we each get to choose our end. Who will be there, or not. Where it will take place, or not. What needs closure, or not.

In honor of my Aunt Sally, I encourage each of you to Google pancreatic cancer and learn about the early warning signs, risk factors, and what you can do. Most of all, I encourage you to know your body and when something is not "right" get it checked. Take a few hours out of you life each year (yes, you can fit this in) for an annual check-up with your doctor.

Thank you, Aunt Sally, for always doing what you thought was right, for your efforts and accomplishments at home and in the Norman Library System, and for teaching countless others how to fight and how to speak up and say no more fighting. See you soon....................


nancyb said...

And she raised a wonderful daughter to boot...Anne is one of the kindest, coolest and most beautiful women I know. Plus, she regularly kicks my ass at WordTwist on FB so she's smart, too. Not fair! Thanks for this post, Sally.

Adrienne said...

Thank you Sally for posting this. My Uncle Tim died of pancreatic cancer in Feb 1999. It took him from us within a year. It started off as back pain and it was diagnosed after it had advanced too far. It is one of the most aggressive cancers that my family has dealt with and we have had a history of quite a few different kind of cancers. Thanks again for posting the story about your Aunt.