Relda Marshall’s only pancreatic cancer symptoms seemed benign to her — stomach pains and belching after eating.
Eventually, Relda saw her local doctor in Mount Pleasant, Texas. He prescribed an acid-reducer and ordered bloodwork and an ultrasound. A follow-up CT scan confirmed that she had a two-centimeter tumor on her pancreas.
“It was a shock,” Relda says. “I had never been really sick.” After discussing the diagnosis with her family, she decided to go to MD Anderson.
In Feb. 2012, she met with Matthew Katz, M.D., who gave her a definitive diagnosis: pancreatic cancer.
Relda’s pancreatic cancer treatment
Katz and Gauri Rajani Varadhachary, M.D., created Relda’s pancreatic cancer treatment plan, which would include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery. “Everybody was caring and professional,” Relda says.
For two weeks, Relda took an oral chemotherapy drug called Xeloda in the morning and evening, and received radiation in the afternoon. Then, she returned home to recover for four weeks so her pancreas could become firmer for the surgery.
On April 5, 2012, Katz completed the surgery, removing the tumor, Relda’s gallbladder, spleen, a third of her stomach and surrounding lymph nodes. He performed a vein reconstruction as well. Because the tumor had integrated itself into Relda’s pancreas, Dr. Katz needed to remove the entire pancreas instead of only a portion of the pancreas.
Relda was walking the day after her surgery. After 10 days in the hospital and two more weeks in Houston, she returned home with an order to take Gemcitabine, an intravenous chemotherapy, for four months with a local doctor.
But shortly after being discharged, Relda developed jaundice and returned to MD Anderson, where Katz’s team discovered a blocked biliary duct. She received a drainage tube that is replaced every three months.
A new routine after pancreatic cancer treatment
Without a pancreas, Relda requires insulin shots. For the first two months after the operation, she also needed a feeding tube.
MD Anderson clinical dietitian Maria Petzel and nurse practitioner Carol Clegg showed Relda’s husband, Pat, how to help. “I would tell Pat all the time, ‘I don’t know what I would do without you,’” she says.
A mission and routine after pancreatic cancer
During Relda’s pancreatic cancer recovery, low energy, digestive problems and her care sometimes felt overwhelming. “I would have a two-minute cry, and then I would just not keep going there,” Relda says. “You just have to stay positive.”
Relda resumed eating solid foods a couple of months after surgery. By seven months after the surgery, she’d lost 40 pounds, which meant her clothes didn’t fit. Although she’d retired from her position with the county’s auto registration department after her pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Relda still wanted a mission and a regular routine.
For a while, that mission became finding new clothes. “I would get up, get a shower, get my makeup on and go shopping,” Relda says. “Emotionally, I needed a pick-me-up. It was my therapy.”
In Jan. 2013, Relda began using an insulin pump, which helped simplify her care. She and Pat also began writing cards and visiting others in their community who were sick. “We knew how much the support meant to us, and we wanted to be there for other people,” Pat says.
Optimism after pancreatic cancer
Nearly five years after her surgery, Relda remains cancer-free and positive about the future.
The Marshalls credit MD Anderson for giving Relda more years to live. “I told Dr. Katz that God is my heavenly hero, but he is my earthly hero,” she says. “You want to come to the best place with the best people and equipment if you’re ever stricken with cancer.”
The couple now travels regularly, and they never go a day without saying, “I love you.” Relda cherishes living a normal life.
“Everyone has circumstances that make times in their lives difficult. You just need to make the most of your situation,” she says. “I’m going to live a normal life. That’s my advice for survivors and caregivers: live as normally as you can.”
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