On the fifth anniversary of the day she entered remission, Mai Salem was told her pancreatic cancer had returned.
At first, Mai was devastated. For five years, Mai had provided hope for other pancreaticcancer patients as a volunteer for myCancerConnection, a support group that pairs new patients with survivors who share their same cancer diagnosis. But after her recurrence, she wasn't so sure she could still be a voice of hope.
Over time, though, Mai has come to realize that despite her pancreatic cancer recurrence, the way she continues to live her life remains an inspiration to her fellow patients.
"I enjoy life to the maximum," she says. "That's what I do. I try to enjoy everything I can, when I can."
Mai's pancreatic cancer symptoms, diagnosis and treatment
Mai had been experiencing stomach pain for several months, but her local doctor kept dismissing her complaints, telling her it was all the spicy Thai food she ate.
Eventually, she sought a second opinion. Tests showed that Mai had pancreatic cancer--more specifically, a neuroendocrine tumor that metastasized to her liver. Mai and her husband David began researching. They knew her type of tumor was rare, but they were able to find information about it on MD Anderson's website.
With a recommendation from her brother, they decided toseek pancreatic cancer treatment here. Mai's doctor, David Fogelman, M.D., assistant professor Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology, prescribed four rounds of chemotherapy and surgery.
For days after each round of chemotherapy, she lay in bed, unable to do anything. But after surgery, she entered remission and, over time, began to feel better.
A new approach to life after a recurrence
When her pancreatic cancer returned, she decided to approach it differently. Mai was determined to live life as normally as possible, despite how difficult it could be at times.
She made herself eat. She made herself exercise, even when she could only muster small amounts of energy. Each day, she went for a short walk and challenged herself to walk a few feet further each time.
"I'd tell myself, 'You're going to do it, Mai,' and I made it. Even though I almost cried, I told myself, 'And tomorrow, you're going to do it better and longer'," she says. "My will to fight is larger than anything else."
This new attitude and determination has helped Mai remain strong throughout her treatment.
How pancreatic cancer helped a couple grow closer
Part of Mai's strength comes from her husband David, who is constantly encouraging his wifeto take one more bite or another step. And while she may resent his tough love at times, the couple says her cancer has brought them closer together.
"My fight is not with her. It's with cancer," David says. "It transcends everything. Without her, I don't function."
Mai calls David as her rock. Along with their children, David gives her reason tocontinue to fight. He's been at her side through each of her 22 trips to MD Anderson, listening and giving her courage and strength.
Lessons from pancreatic cancer
Looking back over her two pancreatic cancer journeys, Mai can see she's changed for the better. "I never thought I'd be the person I am today," she says. "I'm so much stronger."
Not only has she become physically stronger, but she has become mentally stronger, as well. She continues to fight for her family and friends who have supported her every step of her cancer journey.
"Cancer has taught me to take a breath and deal with what I've been given. It's taught me that faith and a positive attitude are huge, not only in getting though cancer, but also in life," she says.
"Life is difficult. But life is worth every difficulty."