Pancreatic Cancer Survivor
My name is Kris and I'm happy to say I turned 63 in April 2015. When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Jan. 6, 2011, it was a very, very dark day. At that time, I had a teenage son and daughter, two Bichon Frises, a bunny and a wonderful husband I’d been with for 27 years.
I also had two aunts who had died of pancreatic cancer, one that I was particularly close to. I remember very clearly when my primary care physician called to tell me the results of a CAT scan she had ordered. I told her, “Don’t tell me this! This is a death sentence!” I was horrified.
I immediately contacted my sister, a trauma surgeon at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. They say that the Lord works in mysterious ways. At that time, my sister was studying for another board certification. She had just read a paper written by a Virginia Mason oncologist about the team approach to treating pancreatic cancer.
She asked if I was aware of Virginia Mason and I responded that I had been getting my care there for more than 20 years! She urged me to talk with the physician who had written the article she had read because "he totally gets it” — that cancer has to be looked at holistically. His protocol and the Virginia Mason approach, she said, appeared to be quite unique in the treatment of pancreatic cancer.
I met this oncologist for the first time in a joint meeting with my surgeon. I loved him right away. He has twinkly eyes, a very honest, straightforward manner and a sense of humor. That trust was confirmed when he came in to my hospital room at 9:30 at night, the day after my surgery. The diagnosis of stage 2 pancreatic cancer had just been confirmed and my husband and I were both having a good cry.
This doctor introduced himself again and then sat down on the foot of my bed. He said, "What information can I give you that will help you sleep tonight?” He then proceeded to patiently answer our zillion questions. But the answer that meant most to me was when my husband asked him, “What do you consider to be your role in this proposed treatment?” He answered, “My role is to be Kris’s spiritual cheerleader. Anyone can write a script for chemotherapy. But if I can help keep her spirit strong, she will win.”
He proceeded to talk about how cancer was perceived to be a battle waged by the human body. But it was also a battle being waged by the human spirit. I knew I had found the right doctor. Oh, I checked out the competition — but it wasn’t even close.
It is still difficult to talk about the one year of adjuvant therapy. I was very sick and the physical toll it took was a mighty one. But I had the best team in the world. All the oncology nurses were the most compassionate, lovely people. They always gave me a boost, helped me to laugh, and worked so hard to alleviate the terrible side effects. This started even before I got to the treatment room, with the wonderful ladies at the front desk on the second floor who checked me in.
But as awful as 2011 was, it was also a year of many blessings. I developed an extraordinarily close relationship with my daughter. I learned to be a gracious recipient of help. I tell my children and everyone who asks, that my survival was not due to some special effort from me.
Rather, it was the prayers, compassion and kindness of a village. From the neighbors who snuck in at night to fill my garden with tulip bulbs, to the “soccer moms” who brought dinner to my family, every night, for months in a row, to my two best friends, who sat with me every day for an entire year, and to my Virginia Mason “team” — I am here because of you.
I saw my daughter graduate and head off to college. I taught my son how to drive (now there is a challenge!) I went back to work full time — something even the Social Security office had a hard time believing. My life has been changed irrevocably. I laugh more. I spend more time with the people I love. My faith has deepened.
I truly believe that Virginia Mason gave me the means to live a full and complete life. Having such a serious illness leaves a shadow. It is always there, flitting around the edges. I don’t dwell on it. I’ve been very fortunate to be invited to work with Virginia Mason to improve the patient experience, through workshops and participating in process improvement sessions.
The dedication I see from the Virginia Mason team is an inspiration. Life after cancer is not “normal.” It’s better than that. Continuing my relationship with Virginia Mason is part of that “better.” Whatever I can do to give back is such a small price to pay for the amazing care I received and continue to receive. Thank you, thank you. As my son would say, “You totally rock!”