One Spleen and Half a Pancreas Later

Words you never want to hear on the phone: “The doctor has your scan and would like you to come in this morning. You don’t need an appointment.”

That was just over eight years ago, and on November 5, 2004, a 10 cm mass was removed from my pancreas, along with the tail of that organ, and my spleen.

Except for having to take pancreatic enzymes when I eat, and not being able to vent my spleen, I live a normal life—I’m not diabetic—and I consider November 5th my re-birthday.

I had had pain on my life side since the early ’90s, but other than a stress test, very little testing had been done. Around the time I changed doctors in late summer 2004, the pain got significantly worse, and the new doc ordered an ultrasound, followed by a CT scan. That’s when his nurse called, telling me to come in. The scan was on the screen when I walked in; the doctor’s face was grim.

My mass was about the size of a baseball, except it had a smaller mass on top of it, like a snowman.

I was fortunate to have maybe the best medical care available in Austin, and the gastroenterologist to whom I was referred advised me to see the pancreatic cancer specialist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. When that doctor reviewed the scans, he said he didn’t think anything that big could be cancerous—it would have killed me long before that—but it had to come out. Thus, the surgery on November 5 (Guy Fawkes Day, my alternative to Halloween as a child in England in the early ’50s.)

 

After nine days at M.D. Anderson and a month of recovery at home (and a few days in an Austin hospital to deal with some post-op complications), I received a call from my surgeon a few days before Christmas telling me the frozen section biopsy of the mass showed cancer cells in the center. (My research had led me to a New England Journal of Medicine article that explained there are three kinds of pancreatic masses: cysts, which are never cancerous; the serious kind of pancreatic cancer that kills within six months; and a middle kind, a pancreatic cystadenoma, which can become cancerous over time. That’s what I had. My surgeon, in consultation with other doctors, recommended a course of chemo and radiation.

I was able to remain at home in Austin and, in early 2005, had five weeks of an oral chemo (without hair loss or any other side effects) and six weeks of radiation, which made me feel like I had a low-grade flu for the entire six weeks plus two weeks afterwards. In the middle of this, my husband had angioplasty. Those were the only days I missed work—I went to daily radiation treatments by leaving work a little early every afternoon.

Knowing the outcome, if I had to go through this again, I wouldn’t change anything, despite the fear and pain and worry. I am so grateful for the blessings that came to me during and after—the loving support of husband, family, co-workers, neighbors and friends, and glad just to be alive. I have since learned of people who had similar masses who did not survive.

A few simple lessons and advice to share:

  • Every day is a gift
  • The best medicine happens when doctors combine their skills and knowledge
  • Don’t ignore undiagnosed or unexplained pain

Later this month I see the Austin oncologist for my annual CT scan. He always enjoys seeing me because of my happy outcome.

We are on the road for some R&R after all the prep work for the house renovations, doing very little except eating, sleeping, walking, reading and relaxing. The public library whose wi-fi we are using is a voting site. Don’t forget to vote! (We did before we left.)

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5 responses to “One Spleen and Half a Pancreas Later”

  1. Katie says :

    Congratulations! Another precious year! May you have many, many more (blowing pretend “birthday” candles!).

    Six months into my own survivor journey, I am learning that survivorship, though a preferred outcome, sometimes has a strange effect on me when I learn about fellow cancer patients who lost their lives to the disease.

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