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October 23rd is my mother’s birthday. Today, she would be 65-years-old. When I knew that my mother was going to die before she turned 65, I became incredibly angry. And not for the reason you might think – not because I would lose my mother before I turned 30 or because she would never know my angel of a nephew, Jude. I was angry because my Mom had a very simple, delightful, adorably “Reenie” plan for her 65th birthday. She was going to ride SEPTA, the public transportation sytem in Philadelphia, all the way to the end of the line and back. Because when you turn 65, you can ride SEPTA, anytime, anywhere, for $1.
My mother wasn’t afraid of getting old, which is why it makes me so angry that she didn’t have the pleasure of becoming an old lady. My mother died at 63, just a month before her 64th birthday, from pancreatic cancer.
Just a little over a year ago, through a strange turn of events, I became my Dad’s second-in-command caretaker for my mother. I don’t have a speck of medical experience, in fact I need to lay down when I have the slightest bit of blood drawn or I’ll faint, but 4 days a week I would stay with my parents and act as my Mom’s nurse, doing my best to acclimate to her ever-changing needs and keep her as comfortable as possible. Not because she was needy or demanding – not at all. But because her decline was so quick, and she changed day-by-day. She had already stopped her chemotherapy at this point. We all knew she was going to die. We were just biding the time, helping her through the last difficult months of her life.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I would come back to my apartment in Virginia so emotionally exhausted that I hardly ever actually made it to the office. The stress made any physical pain I was feeling, like migraines or menstrual cramps, ten times worse. Months later, after my Mom passed away, I would be diagnosed with PTSD.
But believe it or not, I wouldn’t trade the honor of being by my mother’s side in those final months for a second. Not for anything. Because if my Mom was going to go through this pain, I was going to be with her, no matter how badly it has scarred me. What I went through was nothing to what she went through.
Pancreatic cancer is a beast. Before my Mom was diagnosed, I didn’t even know what my pancreas did or where it was. But pancreatic cancer creeps up on you like an ambush, undetected until it’s already at Stage 4. After that, it’s a swift killer. We were actually lucky that we had Mom with us for a year, even an extremely tough year. 12 months survival after diagnosis is rare. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my Mom’s Stage 4 diagnosis in October of 2012 was essentially a death sentence.
But death is only part of what makes cancer so horrible – the suffering at the end of life is the other part. When I talk to medical professionals about the fact that my Mom had pancreatic cancer, they have a consistent reaction: a sharp intake of breath, avoiding eye contact and shaking their head. That’s because pancreatic cancer is also one of the most painful diseases out there and it is a terrible way to spend the last months of your life.
I’ve thought a lot about how to illustrate how much a pancreatic cancer patient suffers without sharing too much of my mom’s personal struggle. I know she’s gone, but I don’t want to insult her memory by sharing things she wouldn’t want shared on the internet. So I asked a doctor to help me describe it. He told me that, as far as doctors can tell, the pain of pancreatic cancer is so intense that it’s comparable to breaking your back but never healing. At the height of pain in the journey of a pancreatic cancer patient, the only relief you can give the patient is to dose the painkillers until the patient is in a comatose state. And still the pain can break through. I know. I saw it happen.
But it doesn’t need to be that way – there are amazing medical breakthroughs being discovered every day! Penn has tested, with success, a revolutionary new treatment that literally reprograms your T-cells with HIV to attack cancer cells and it’s now being tested on solid tumors like ovarian and pancreatic cancer. A young man named Jack Andraka has created a blood test that is faster and cheaper than any other test currently used, which could help me or my siblings detect pancreatic cancer before it becomes inoperable. But these tests and treatments take years of research and testing before they can be offered to the public. And in order to give these incredible scientists the resources they need to forge ahead, we need awareness of this disease and more funds to sustain them.
On November 1st, my family is going to participate in Philadelphia’s Purple Stride 5k for the 3rd year in a row. James and I are disappointed that we can’t join them, since I’m undergoing my second surgery for the year next week. However, check out our page, Run MacD, and donate if you can – every little bit helps, and you’ll see that some team members are close to their fundraising goals. You could help bump them over the edge!
But if you can’t make a monetary donation, there’s still something incredibly valuable that you can do. Please share this post on the social media of your choosing. It may show another person caring for an ailing parent that they’re not alone. It might encourage someone with disposable income to throw a little our way. And it may, hopefully, raise awareness that this disease is out there and it ain’t going anywhere unless we stand up to it, together.
Thanks so much for reading. Even just your eyes on this page, in this moment, mean so much to me.