Focusing on my pancreatic cancer treatment helped me stay positive
Sometimes knowledge is not all it’s cracked up to be. So, when I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in July 2016, I told Dr. Robert Wolff I didn’t want to know anything.
As an academic, I knew I had the means to understand the information. But I also knew that anything that went in my mind would stay there and bounce around. And if nothing was in there, then there was nothing to fear. So, I made my brother, sister and aunt listen to my prognosis, and I focused on what I had to do from one day to the next.
I knew I had pancreatic cancer. And I knew it was bad, from the way my sister, Rose, rained little kisses on my forehead. I also knew people had died from it. But I chose not to know any other details, because the only way for me to remain optimistic was to keep my life very simple. I had to concentrate on the task at hand, and let God handle the rest.
Hunkering down and limiting information
Mostly, my response was instinctual. Animals in the wild hunker down when they’re ill. So I chose not to know anything until after I showed no evidence of disease in January 2017. Then I started educating myself.
I’ve always lived a healthy lifestyle, and I know how to control my thoughts, so I figured if anybody was going to have a fighting chance against this, it was me. I also derived a lot of comfort from my faith, because I kept seeing one particular Biblical passage repeated over and over.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to the Blessed Mother, she answered, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Do unto me according to Thy will.” Those two sentences kept appearing — even in Latin — for about a year before my diagnosis. So for once in my life, I decided I was going to be totally obedient and just follow the doctors’ orders.
Like mother, like daughter
My daughter Claire’s defense mechanism turned out to be much the same. Once I told her about my diagnosis, she didn’t really want to hear too much about it. Which I understood, because at the time, she was only 18 and going from buying clothes for rush week during her first year of college to having a mother with stage IV pancreatic cancer.
It helped a lot that I never really looked ill. I had a bit of neuropathy, and my hair thinned a little, but I never actually went bald. And I was never emaciated or jaundiced. In fact, several people asked my sister if she was the cancer patient, because bearing the weight of the knowledge affected her appearance so much.
The only constant reminder I had of the cancer was my MD Anderson wristband. Sometimes, my daughter would ask, “Mom, why don’t you cover it or take it off?” But otherwise, it remained my private battle.
‘Don’t put your life on hold for cancer.’
Many well-meaning people told my daughter not to go to college. They’d say, “Stay with your mom. She’s going to be dead by Christmas.” But as an only child, I knew Claire needed the structure of college, roommates, sorority sisters and dorm mothers around her. That way, she’d have something to occupy her mind if I didn’t make it. Encouraging her to go to college turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
It’s still going to be a while before Claire can really come to terms with my diagnosis. But she thanked me recently for not telling her more than I did, saying she wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on her mid-terms if I had. So don’t put your life on hold for cancer. I’ve shown no evidence of disease since January 2017, and my daughter’s life is still on track.