Mary's Story

My journey with Pancreatic Cancer began with after work drinks one Thursday night in July 2020. Along with one wine, I had 2 sausage rolls to eat. Later that night I had what I now realise was indigestion and questioned my wisdom as to having eaten both of the sausage rolls. I slept little that night as I felt so uncomfortable.

I am a teacher and then thought I must have caught a tummy bug from a child at school. I spent the weekend feeling pretty yucky and noticed my urine was dark brown and my stools were very pale. I also had a very itchy rash on my chest. I had no sign of any jaundice at this stage. I was talking to another teaching colleague and she remarked the symptoms reminded her of the same symptoms she had, had several years before when she caught hepatitis from a school pupil.I was frightened I had hepatitis and pictured my school as having to close and have all the school tested so I headed to my GP on the Monday morning.

The GP was very through and after listening to my symptoms and examining me sent me for an urgent blood tests. The blood test results the same day had me then sent the next morning up to Christchurch (I live in Ashburton, South Canterbury) for an urgent ultrasound. I was still unaware of exactly what the GP suspected and thought we were looking for a gall stone blocking my bile duct. The results of scan that morning had me sent immediately to the Christchurch hospital to be admitted. After CT scans, MRIs, and an attempt to evaluate the problem via an endoscopic procedure I was diagnosed 3 days later with a biliary obstruction that was likely to be carcinoma. I was completely and utterly blown away.

The surgeon visited myself and my family in my hospital room and I thought he was coming to tell me there was nothing that could be done (the only people I had known with Pancreatic Cancer only survived their diagnosis for a few short weeks). The surgeon was quite adamant I was a candidate for surgery and I was booked to have a Whipple Procedure one week later.

I did a little bit of reading in the next week via Goggle but mostly focused on getting my affairs in order. I visited my lawyer and then wrote letters to all my children and grandchildren. I also wrote very detailed instructions for my funeral should I not survive the surgery. I felt this was very powerful and empowering thing to do although I must admit I cried buckets doing it. It was one thing I could do to be “in charge” during this waiting time. I live alone so welcomed the opportunity to be by myself and complete this task.

On the 21st of July I had a 10-hour surgical procedure to remove the head of my pancreas. I’m sure it was a very long day for my family, but I felt I flew through the surgery. I spent 17 days in Christchurch hospital and was amazed as to how well the pain was managed and I didn’t find the surgery too painful (there were some pretty powerful drugs on board) . The main waiting time was for all my re-plumbing to work again. The results after surgery were that the tumour was removed with clear margins, but cancer showed in 3 lymph nodes.

After 17 days I was discharged to recover at the home of my youngest son and daughter-in-law and their young family. At the end of August, I began my chemotherapy regime. The first round was pretty awful, and I didn’t leave my bed for 3 days. I had some facial swelling, some diarrhea which was manageable but very wearying, mild nausea and some chest pain. I had pretty much decided I would stop the chemotherapy and met with the oncologist after 10 days. The oncologist felt the side effects were at the severe end of the spectrum so it was decided to dial the dose down by 20%. I then moved back to my own home with caregivers in place  as I felt the children didn’t need to be exposed daily to "sick Nana in the bedroom". I continued then to have 10 more rounds. The side effects were nowhere near as severe. After 9 rounds I had a CT scan which showed no sign of any recurrence or metastases. After the 11th round, it was decided that I should stop the treatment as I had side effects of neuropathy in my hands and feet. The following CT scan showed no recurrence or metastases. I was discharged from the care of the oncologist and referred back to my GP for follow up.

I was a little terrified that the only follow up on offer was 3 monthly blood tests, so I went privately to see my surgeon. He explained that these routine blood tests were the best way to monitor my progress, to keep a clear monitoring of my weight and to know my own body. I have just had a post chemo 3-month series of blood test which came back as all okay. So, the next step for me is to follow up with more blood tests in 3 months.

I consider myself to be one of the success stories of Pancreatic Cancer. The quick diagnosis from my GP and my initial hospital visit, the skills of the surgeon and the compassionate and thoughtful way the chemotherapy regime was decided and administered for me were all crucial to my recovery including the marvellous district nurses who called at my home to watch over my chemo infusions and care for my PICC line. As I live alone, it was decided by my family and friends that I was never to be alone at home throughout my whole treatment. Consequently, there was always someone here to do all the mundane but necessary tasks around my home. They took over all the running of my home and coaxed and cajoled me to eat when I didn’t feel like it. They drove me to my many treatments, listening to me when I had meltdowns and supported me 100%. I truly feel my journey has been a real team effort.

As a side point, I asked my GP recently has he had experience with another patient with Pancreatic Cancer before and he told me I was his first so I again told him I would be forever grateful to him for his diagnosis.

 The main point I want to make is that there is always hope. Hope that the symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer become more widely known, hope that people are educated not to ignore their own body’s symptoms and hope that we can find a cure for PC.

by Mary Kearney

11th May 2021