Purple Is My Color: Pancreatic Cancer Awareness

Purple is my color…in November. Well, except on the Saturday of the Alabama-LSU game (which was this past Saturday). Other than that day, purple is my color in November, because the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has adopted purple as the color for Pancreatic Cancer Awareness, and November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.

My daddy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February of 2006. He died less than seven months after his diagnosis, on October 2. Our hearts broke when he was diagnosed, continued breaking for seven months, and shattered on October 2. But he was finally at peace, after a lot of suffering.

I remember exactly where I was when my parents told me Daddy had pancreatic cancer. I was driving up Colony Road, near the intersection at Carmel Road, in Charlotte, going to meet my friend, Wendy, for dinner with her, her husband, their son, and my daughter, the night before Wendy was scheduled for a C-section to have her daughter, Madison. I was devastated at the news from my parents, but I didn’t want to ruin the night for Wendy, so I dried up my tears and put on a brave face. Apparently, I was a better actress than I had ever realized, because they suspected nothing over dinner. We celebrated the upcoming birth of Madison (though she didn’t have a name yet, at that point).

I knew the prognosis for pancreatic cancer patients was not good. I knew my time with my daddy was limited, so we tried to make the best of it. We were fortunate to have a condo near my parents’ house in Alabama, so we moved down there for the last couple of months before he died. My brother came down as often as he could, and even though it was bittersweet, we had a lot of quality time together. We made the most of it, but we knew we were losing our daddy.

Daddy was brave. He even maintained his sense of humor. He worried about what would become of us after he was gone. He was sad he wouldn’t see his beloved grandchildren grow up. He encouraged us to stick together. And he often said, “I’ve lived a full life, and now, I’m spending lots of quality time with y’all.”  He was finding the silver lining till the end. Throughout life, he looked for the good. And in his final days, the good was that he had a family who loved him and loved each other. He knew it. We laughed. We cried. And then we laughed some more to keep from crying.

And here’s the thing. In the 12 years since we lost Daddy, not much has changed for pancreatic cancer patients. Most patients don’t survive one year after diagnosis, and very few survive five years…roughly 95 percent of those diagnosed die from it. It’s very difficult to diagnose, and it’s usually too late when it is diagnosed. It is considered by many to be the deadliest cancer, based on the general prognosis, but it gets very little press. Every time a friend calls me and tells me someone they know has been diagnosed, I don’t know what to say. The only thing I can do is offer prayer and refer them to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, also known as PanCan.org. We need more awareness, more funding for research, and we need more trials, and PanCan raises money for those things. They also raise awareness and on behalf of patients and families, contacting Congressmen and Senators, encouraging them to support bills that offer funding for research.

So, every year, since 2006, I wear purple in November. It might be just a purple handbag, purple pendant, or purple earrings, but I try to wear a little piece of purple every day…except the day Bama plays LSU…Daddy would understand.

***If you would like to donate to PanCan.org, please go to the website here. Call or write your Congressmen and Senators, encouraging them to increase funding for pancreatic cancer research.***

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Photo: pancan.org

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If Only I Could Call Them

When Daddy was dying, it seemed the thing he hated most about dying was thinking about what he was going to miss. He said he wasn’t afraid of what would happen to him, but he was sad he would miss his family, and he would miss some of the big moments.

I think, we, the ones left behind, often feel the same thing. There are lots of times I think, “I wish Daddy were here to see this.” And since December, I often think, “I wish I could call Mother and tell her about this.”

In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself wishing they were here more than usual. I always miss them, but situations arise that I would love to share with them, and that’s when I really wish they were here.

In May, I wrote a piece titled Behind That White Picket Fence (click here to see it) about how we never know what’s going on in someone’s private life. A friend from college commented on my post, making me think of Mother and something that happened twenty years ago.

When I was about 30, a friend was diagnosed with colon cancer. Her name is Susan, and I think she was 28 or 29 at the time. She was/is married (in fact, I introduced her to her husband) and while her husband was supportive, her parents jumped right in to help. Her husband needed to work and couldn’t be there all the time, so her parents took turns spending the night at the hospital with her and stayed during the day, as well. She had  complications after surgery, but they were there to advocate for her. If I remember correctly, she was in the hospital for months.

During this time, my maternal grandmother and a friend of hers were breezing through Mobile on a trip and stopped in to visit Mother. We will call the friend Gladys. Mother had never met Gladys and frankly, found her to be rather harsh. They were there for a few hours, so Mother didn’t jump to that conclusion quickly.

While they were there, insurance became the topic of conversation. Gladys, at some point, complained about her insurance agent, saying he had not been responsive over recent months. When she mentioned his name, Mother knew she had to say something. She responded, “Well, I’m sure you don’t know, but his young daughter has colon cancer. She’s had surgery and complications, and he has been spending days and nights at the hospital with her. If he hasn’t been responsive, that’s a good reason. God bless him.”

That evening, Mother called me to tell me what had happened, and she was a little hot under the collar. Of course, I reminded her Gladys probably had no idea, and while Mother realized that, she was miffed Gladys wasn’t giving Susan’s dad, her insurance agent for 30 years, the benefit of the doubt.

So, after Susan commented on Behind That Picket Fence, I sent her a message telling her about the exchange. She responded by telling me she was happy to hear my mother had interceded. She reminded me her daddy had stayed with her in the hospital and had even devised a way to wash her hair, simply because he knew it was something he could do that would make her feel a little better. He made some sort of “contraption” that made it possible for him to wash her hair while she was lying in bed. The nurses didn’t want him to do it, but he did, and Susan immediately felt better. Afterward, the nurses started started using the same contraption and method to wash the hair of other patients.

That exchange with my friend was one of those moments I wish Mother were here. I wanted to call and tell her I had shared the story with Susan, and in response, she told me what great things her daddy did for her. In fact, Susan told me her daddy was retired by the time she was diagnosed, so no wonder he wasn’t responsive! He was no longer the agent!

But I couldn’t call Mother. She would have loved that story.

There are also things I’d love to share with my daddy. Just this week, I had lunch with my cousin, Ardrue, who lives in Cherryville, North Carolina, about an hour away. Ardrue and I started getting together over the past couple of years. We had never met until early 2016, but I had heard about Ardrue my entire life. She is my daddy’s first cousin. Their mothers were sisters.

When I say I’d heard about Ardrue my entire life, I mean it. I remember, as a little girl, hearing Daddy and Aunt Katie talk about Ardrue. I don’t remember the stories, but who can forget a name like Ardrue? I’ve told her this, so it’s OK…I remember asking daddy, “What kind of name is Ardrue?” I remember seeing pictures of a little girl/teenage Ardrue when I would go through old pictures. Her name appeared on the backs of several pictures.  In fact, I can hardly wait to get back to Alabama to go through pictures and find some to bring back to show her.

Ardrue has told me stories about my daddy as a young man, and she has shared stories about the family, as well. When we are talking, I love when she mentions a familiar name in one of her stories. Sometimes she is even surprised I recognize a name. Most of the times, I recognize the names from stories Daddy used to tell…he was a good storyteller. She is a charming lady with a great sense of humor. I’ll have to ask her if a sense of humor runs in the family. It’s hard to tell, because in all the old pictures of my grandparents and great-grandparents, they all look so serious.

And this is one of those times I wish Daddy were here. He would be thrilled Ardrue and I  get together. Not only that, but we enjoy each other’s company! He would want to sit right there with us, laughing and talking. The two of them would be able to reminisce and remind each other of things that happened when they were children.

But I can’t call Daddy. He can’t join us for lunch. He would have loved spending time with Ardrue.

And recently, when our daughter was away for two weeks on a group trip to Iceland and not allowed to use her phone to call home, Mother and Daddy would have commiserated with me. They likely would have been calling me three times a day to ask if there had been any email updates from the group leaders.

While it’s painful immediately following the loss of a parent, there are other times that are difficult too. Interestingly, for me, it’s usually the happy times that I miss them. I wish they could see my daughter play lacrosse and field hockey. Daddy would have loved watching her play basketball too. I used to always call Mother from my car after I dropped off my daughter somewhere, and I would call her after any of my daughter’s games and give her the post-game wrap-up. That was a habit that was hard to break after Mother passed.  I wish I could just pick up the phone and call both of them to tell them funny stories, talk about trivial stuff, and brag about my daughter. They would love knowing my brother and I talk almost every day, and we still call each other to get answers to trivial questions. And they would be so happy to know we have been vacationing together.

But I can’t call them.

If only I could call them…

Behind That White Picket Fence

When my daddy was sick and dying of pancreatic cancer in 2006, I learned a lot.

One thing I learned is that we never really know what someone is going through. I remember leaving my parents’ house one evening after spending time with them when he was sick. They lived in a traditional southern style home with a white picket fence. Yep, a white picket fence.

On the outside, everything appeared to be normal…quiet, peaceful. On the inside of that house, it was anything but normal. I remember thinking, “People driving by have no idea how sad things are inside my parents’ house right now.”

It made me think. It made me look at people differently.

As I drove out of their neighborhood that evening, I looked at each house I passed and wondered if everything was OK. I wondered if there was anyone else experiencing the sadness we were experiencing. Were the people in the corner house feeling OK? Was anyone lying in the floor of their house waiting for help? Were people crying around a dinner table because of illness or divorce? Were any of the neighbors having financial problems?

Have you ever been in a restaurant and received terrible service? It’s human nature for us to think, “What a lousy waiter.” But in reality, that waiter might be a great waiter who is going through a terrible time. We don’t know what kind of problems he may have at home. We don’t know if his wife or child might have a terminal illness. We don’t know if he can’t pay his bills. We don’t know if he is dying.

I remember when my daddy first started having symptoms in mid 2005. He was experiencing rapid, unexplained weight loss, which we attributed to the horrible hip pain he had been having. We had no idea it was pancreatic cancer, but we knew something was wrong.

At the same time, my maternal grandmother was in the early stages of dementia, and my mother was having to drive back and forth from the Mobile, Alabama, area to Birmingham, five hours each way, to get her evaluated and help get her settled in an assisted living facility. Daddy couldn’t go with her, because he wasn’t able to sit in the car for that long.

No one had any idea.

That September, right in the middle of all this, my husband’s beloved grandmother died. The funeral was in Mobile. The day before the funeral, my mother had to go back to Birmingham, to meet with medical professionals about my grandmother’s care and to get the house locked up. It couldn’t wait. On the same day, my daddy had to get an epidural for the hip pain. It was a terrible time for my husband’s family, and in a different way, a terrible time for my family.

My parents were very private people, so very few people knew what they were going through.

With Mother out of town, my daddy was incapacitated because of the epidural and his hip problems. He was in terrible pain. There was no way I could ask him to keep a two-yr-old during the funeral, and there was no way he or my mother could attend. They said prayers for my husband and his family, but their own issues were big…bigger than anyone outside the family knew.

I’m sure there were some people who thought they should have been there or that they should have kept our daughter while we went to the funeral, but again…you never know what someone else is going through. One person even mentioned it. I just thought, “Bless his heart…he has no idea.” My parents were dealing with two different major health crises in two different cities. Even though we didn’t know the extent of my daddy’s illness, we knew something was wrong. And my grandmother, well, that was just sad. My poor mother was exhausted from driving back and forth…taking care of people at both ends of the state. There was no way my parents could have done anything differently than what they did.

As very private people, my parents would not have wanted me to tell anyone what they were dealing with, but it was a very difficult time.

No one could have known.

When my daughter was starting first grade, we had a “meet the teacher” day. All the parents gathered in the classroom. The teacher announced she would need a room mother for the school year. My friend whose child was also in the class turned to me and said, “You should do that!”

Unbeknownst to her, my husband was scheduled for brain surgery that September. I said, “Oh, I can’t. My husband is having brain surgery soon.” She was horrified. She’d had no idea, because no matter what my family was going through, we had to continue putting one foot in front of the other. I had been living life as usual, but something big was looming over our family. Of course, I told her not to be horrified, because we hadn’t told a lot of people.

This past December, when my mother died, I kept it quiet for a while in Charlotte, because I needed to process it emotionally before dealing with it publicly. I remember going to a meeting at school in early January and running into a friend. I saw her and said, “I have something to tell you, and when I say it, I need you to not ask questions and immediately change the subject.” I didn’t want to cry in public, and I didn’t want to make a scene.

She handled it perfectly. I said, “My mother died at the end of December.” She did exactly as I asked and immediately asked me about something else. Yay! Lots of people would have thought it was strange behavior, but she knew what I needed. I needed to keep going.

That friend and I have known each other for ten years, and until I told her, she didn’t know what was going on with me.

We really never know, do we? Maybe we should take that into consideration when someone forgets to meet us somewhere or forgets to return a call. Maybe that terrible waiter just needs someone to be kind to him.

How many times have you had a friend tell you they were getting divorced, but you had no idea there was a problem in their marriage? I’ve had two friends surprise me with this news in just the past few years, and I actually consider myself to be a pretty darn perceptive person. These are friends I saw regularly at least a few times a month, and I had no clue anything was wrong.

Often, we keep our private lives just that…private.

I know that after my mother died, I dropped out of life for a month. I gave myself permission to stay home, sit in bed, and do nothing for a month. On February 1, I rejoined the living. During the month of January, lots of people still had no idea what was going on in my life. I was grieving my mother, but I wanted to do it privately.

So, as you go through your day, try to remember that lots of people are dealing with terrible things…every day…everywhere. It might be your neighbor who was just diagnosed with cancer. It might be your child’s teacher who has been cranky lately, because her husband lost his job. It might be your friend who hasn’t told you she’s having marital problems.

Often, there are things we do not know. Let’s try to give people the benefit of the doubt.