My name is Mary Rose, and I am 58 years of age. I retired from a thirty-one-year job as a computer specialist and am currently a licensed massage therapist in part-time private practice. I am a kind of a “Renaissance woman"—I have degrees in mathematics and philosophy, a background in counseling and not-for-profit volunteerism, and experience in home renovation and "12-step” work.
On an early Sunday morning in July 2006, an emergency room resident diagnosed my swollen eye and face as periorbital cellulitis, a sight-threatening condition. The next day, after departure from my regular ophthalmologist, I received a call from my gastroenterologist’s office advising me to come in immediately, as they had my CT scan results. When the doctor said “pancreatic cancer,” I had three immediate reactions.
The first was a miraculous re-setting of priorities. I said: “I have cancer. I have no time for periorbital cellulitis right now!” While the hospital had prescribed one strong antibiotic pill that I did take, the surprise was that two days later, the treacherous eye condition simply vanished. It seems that dealing with cancer and all its ramifications took emotional and physical precedence over all other disease.
My second reaction was denial: “Pancreatic cancer? That’s ok; it’s just like mom.” My mother had asymptomatic pancreatic cancer in 1985—they found it during an unrelated operation to repair an abdominal condition—and the doctor simply removed the cancer. She needed no follow-up chemo and no radiation. For me, upon hearing my diagnosis, I felt a level of resignation with the assumption that it would be “no biggie”: I’d have simple surgery, and pancreatic cancer would become a distant memory. That turned out to be denial in its purest form.
Then I raged at my helplessness. In a seven-day whirlwind from diagnosis to exploratory surgery, I rewrote my will, moved in to my new home, and invited eleven friends to dinner. Before the exploratory operation, the doctors said, “Pray for a long surgery.” Well, that did not happen. My procedure turned out to be “Open. Look. Close.” The decision at that time was to excise nothing; rather, to close the incision and start chemotherapy immediately, since tests detected “a few” free-floating abdominal cells. As the doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital explained, the purpose of chemotherapy was to destroy those cells. Removing the tumor prior to chemotherapy could have spread cancer into areas too weakened by surgery to permit post-surgical chemical treatment.
Eventually I had surgery to remove the cancer. It was extensive, and it was successful. I emerged cancer-free, and three post-surgical scans later, I continue to be so. However, the cancer, the drugs, and the surgery with its aftermath affected my life in many ways. When I came to CancerCare, I was physically and emotionally rudderless. I also was experiencing post-traumatic effects that I could not resolve on my own. This is where my CancerCare counselor came in.
Cancer and its fallout altered my dietary ability and requirements. In removing lesions from my stomach and in resecting my colon, doctors necessarily altered my digestive system. It took nine months for my surgical wounds to heal and for my appetite to return to a regular pattern. The order in which I eat has been permanently affected. Today I eat denser foods first, to ingest calories, since my stomach fills very quickly. If I eat bulkier vegetables first, I reach a food limit while my appetite remains. This is so unpleasant! My post-cancer abdomen and stomach will never be the same, but I am acclimating to this new image through the support and counseling I receive at CancerCare.
Based on the work I’ve done, now when faced with an inconceivable problem—which pancreatic cancer certainly was—I look at it physically, emotionally, and spiritually. That is what I had to do to survive. Physically and spiritually, I could find no thing I “could have” or “should have” done differently. Emotionally, however, my life was a different story: I knew I had work to do. As I was facing death, I turned all my energy—weak as I was—to clearing up, cleaning up, and healing whatever I could. In the end, upon becoming cancer-free, I found myself in a new body, scarred but well, with a wide-open future, needing a rock-solid space to explore the enormity of it all. That’s the great support CancerCare provided to me.« Back to stories