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Learning to Cope

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I felt a sense of comfort in arriving in my suburban Detroit hometown after a four and a half hour bus trip from Chicago, my new town. I was ready to unwind and escape from the constant noise of Chicago for the weekend. I was twenty-two.

After I had settled in, my dad asked that I join everyone in the living room. We never have planned family meetings. Something was wrong. Something was really wrong. I sat in the same sunken-in spot on the couch that I always favored. My mom likes to say that I sat there for so long that the couch had actually formed to my body.

I waited for the announcement in dreaded silence. “Your mom has cancer. It’s stage four Pancreatic Cancer,” my dad, the doctor, said with a clinical tone edged with resentment. I immediately dissolved, sunk, my cheeks became wet with frustration and fear, and I collapsed into myself while falling into the embrace of my sisters, Mom, and Dad. As usual, my mom, kept her composure better than the rest of us. I remembered a conversation I had with her earlier in the week about some mundane problem that I was having. “There are worse things in life,” she said with restraint.

“Pancreatic cancer is the worst cancer you can get. Why couldn’t it have been breast cancer?” my dad expressed with contempt. His anger seemed warranted. While breast cancer research has grown exponentially in recent years due to media attention and unfortunately, a high incidence rate. Treatment options have gotten better and women can live for years after the diagnosis.

I soon found that pancreatic cancer did not come along with the endlessly hopefully and empowering pink cheer associated with breast cancer. I did more research when I was ready and was discouraged by what I found. Treatment for pancreatic cancer has remained virtually unchanged for the last thirty years and conventional treatment has hardly been effective. Incidence nearly equals fatality. Life expectancy with this cancer is six months. Angered by the statistics, I shut down my laptop, but the worry was still there. How could my mom who had always been healthy, a non-smoker, normal weight, always the busy body be a cancer patient?

My mom began treatment on a clinical trial at The University of Michigan. She drives forty minutes to the university medical center once every other week to receive treatment, taking a cocktail of drugs that has been effective in shrinking the tumors from her liver. She lugs around a heavy pump on her petite figure that pumps drugs into her bloodstream for three days after her hospital visit.

It’s been a year and a half since her diagnosis and I’m still learning to cope. I started attending Pancreatic Cancer Action Network meetings. PanCan is a wonderful organization that advocates for research for this mysteriously treatment-resilient illness. A few months ago, my mom, dad and I went to D.C. to lobby for a bill to increase funding for this grossly underfunded cancer. I met a friend at PanCan whose father was diagnosed around the same time my mom was. Her father has since past away, but I think we both found that it was nice to have a friend who understood.

I talk with my mom on the phone almost every day. I appreciate time spent with her, and even when I don’t see her, I try to appreciate each day, one day at a time.


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