JUST LEARNED THAT I HAVE PANCREATIC CANCER. GONNA HAVE TO TYPE FASTER.
I don’t mean to trivialize the fact that there is a cancerous mass floating near or in my pancreas. It’s there and it’s scary, and I am secretly thinking “No way! Seriously?” But I did get the official confirmation a week ago and I have to face the reality. Still a part of me says Big F***king Deal. People get cancer every day. I’ve always been a quixotic type of writer but a stern pragmatist about health matters.
I just don’t have enough information yet to worry about this. I may never start worrying. I may not have enough time for that.
Isaac Asimov famously said “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”
That is exactly where I am right now. I just don’t know yet whether I have six months or six years. Maybe more. Or not.
Equal Opportunity Beast
I lost a very dear friend many years ago to cancer and it was devastating. She was so full of life and humor, and optimism, and generosity. Her husband called the disease the beast, and I understood that completely. It does not discriminate. The beast can strike anyone and, in some cases, with no warning.
My sister-in-aw died in 2018 of pancreatic cancer in its advanced stages. The great civil rights leader, Rep. John Lewis announced Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in late 2019. Alex Trebek continues to battle it as does the Notorious RBG, Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Steve Jobs and Aretha Franklin did not beat it.
The disease is 25% higher in black people than white people. Ashkenazi Jews are also in the high risk category. People who smoke or used to smoke, and overweight individuals also place at high risk. The five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is less than 10 percent. Insiders call it the deadliest cancer because generally, by the time you find out you have it, it’s too late to treat.
The American Cancer Society estimates 57,600 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020. About 47,050 of those will die from the disease.
So Why Bother?
Generally, this cancer does not get detected early. Screening of the pancreas is not affordable (or covered) for the average patient, and the little bugger hides behind the stomach. It’s shaped like a fish with a wide head and a tapered tail. In adults it’s about six inches long or about 15 centimeters, and about two inches wide. One of the hormones it secretes is insulin that helps process sugar. It also produces digestive juices to absorb nutrients.
Pancreatic cancer doesn’t appear suddenly but it may seem that way because often there are no apparent symptoms. By the time it is discovered, the options are slim.
The reason I write about this is to stress the need for healthy lifestyles and prevention, and the even more pressing need to ask questions if and when pancreatic cancer becomes a possibility. If you don’t get answers, find another doctor.
Signs of Pancreatic Cancer
If you have any of these symptoms, don’t wait to get checked out. Certain personality types (like Type A) tend to procrastinate when it comes to medical treatment. In my case, I waited nearly a week after noticing a yellowing of my eyes which was jaundice, one of the first and most prominent signs. That doesn’t mean you should assume it is pancreatic cancer-related. Gallstones, hepatitis, and other liver and bile duct diseases are also characterized by jaundice. Just don’t wait to find out.
Abdominal pain- Depending on the location of the mass, this pain may radiate to the back which could cause you to think it’s more back pain than abdominal. It’s an early warning sign, but again, abdominal pain can be caused by so many other issues.
Dark urine: Another common sign is dark urine indicating a buildup of bilirubin levels in the blood. Bilirubin is an orange-yellow pigment that is normal when part of your red blood cells break down. But like everything, too much of a good thing is never good.
Itchy skin: My skin began to itch, everywhere. Arms, legs, hands, neck. This is the effect of increased bilirubin.
Light-colored or greasy stools: “Bilirubin normally helps give stools their brown color. If the bile duct is blocked, stools might be light-colored or gray. Also, if bile and pancreatic enzymes can’t get through to the intestines to help break down fats, the stools can become greasy and might float in the toilet.”
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
Early pancreatic cancers often do not cause any signs or symptoms. By the time they do cause symptoms, they have often…
So Now What?
There is a lot more that my doctors — especially my oncologist — need to know before they decide whether to zap this beast with chemo or try to slice it out, or both. There is always the possibility that neither of those will work but you have to give it a try.
I don’t even know at this time, what stage of cancer I am experiencing. A PET scan (positron emission tomography) that will show a 3D picture of the entire body has been scheduled. That scan will detect the exact placement of the mass and will also determine whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
So I’m just typing a little faster. I have a book and a script to finish before time runs out. Always the pragmatist.