By Matthew Loeb
She had it. That magnetism that attracted family members and friends. My aunts and uncles teasingly referred to her as the “Dean.” The “Rock” would be more fitting. Just ask her three boys.
She also had a slow-growing tumor that metastasized into her lymph nodes. Mom gamely staved off pancreatic cancer for 11 months. Two Whipple procedures, chemo regimens, a medicine chest of pills. But the tumor was relentless. For every breakthrough, there would be a setback. Our options dwindled. We buoyed her spirits — regaling her with family anecdotes. And Mom disarmed the nurses with her wit. “No one has ever told me to eat more,” she cracked to a nurse and me. But Mom, nobody’s fool, knew the daunting odds facing her.
I was home when Mom called me that fateful morning. She had just played tennis, so I expected the usual commentary about her forehand rivaling mine. But her ominous tone suggested something more foreboding. “Matthew, you need to come down to Methodist.”
“Why? What’s going on?” I asked.
“I don’t know but the doctors are performing some tests. Just come down,” Mom responded.
I hustled down and, almost immediately, trepidation crept in. The somber doctors, the hospital room sterility, Dad’s crestfallen look.
Our worst fears were confirmed. Until Oct. 26, 2011, I had never heard of pancreatic cancer. I pity the poor doctor I cornered and barraged with one redundant question after another.
I soon learned pancreatic cancer’s brutality is rivaled only by its swiftness. From its onset, the average life expectancy is six months. The five-year survival rate is 6 percent. And it strikes without any forewarning. One doctor speculated that Mom’s tumor had been festering for 20 years. I gasped. Mom — our family’s matriarch and a community pillar — had been harboring the deadliest type of cancer for two decades.
Out of the top 10 cancer killers, pancreatic cancer is the only one with a five-year survival rate in the single digits. Despite its morbidity, pancreatic cancer research remains woefully underfunded. Grant funding decreased by 15 percent from 2008 to 2009. Here’s the juxtaposition: Leading experts predict that pancreatic cancer will be the second-leading cause of cancer deaths by 2020.
Pancreatic cancer took Mom’s life a year ago but it didn’t sap her will. Our family and others were amazed at her perseverance.
Let’s match Mom’s can-do spirit. Please visit purplestride.org/iowa to find out how we can stifle this insidious disease. The “Dean” deserves nothing less.
Matthew Loeb, an attorney in Des Moines, is spearheading Pancreatic Cancer Action Network community engagement throughout the state. Comments: email@example.com