Posted on September 10, 2012, 3:50 PM
Cancer has a funny way of bringing things full circle. In the worst-case scenario – the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” scenario – it’s actually the opposite of a “funny” way. But for me, going full circle meant rekindling a relationship I thought was gone forever.
Fourteen years ago, through my volunteer work with Denver Kids, Inc., I was matched with little Kristi. Kristi was the kind of eight-year-old you dream of mentoring: funny, full of potential, but with enough sass and spunk to keep things interesting.
Brad – my husband and the love of my life for 39 years – and I spent time with Kristi and her whole family. She’d come over for swimming, meals, bike rides, and reading. I met with Kristi’s school principal and teachers, helping with her homework when she needed it, pushing her to discover the answers on her own when I knew she could. One of my proudest moments of our ten-year relationship, of my entire life really, was when Kristi graduated: the first in her family to do so!
But once Kristi graduated from high school, I lost contact with her. I think she was ready to be independent from the adults in her life. I was sad to see her go. Perhaps even deep down, hurt. But I’d never admit to her or myself. She’d made her choice, and all I could do was accept it.
My journey with pancreatic cancer began two years later, in September 2010. My family had gathered in my hometown in Colorado for a reunion of sorts. Though it was the kind of reunion that nobody should ever have to attend. My older brother had been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor earlier that spring. On our trip back to Colorado I started having stomach aches. I thought it was a stomach bug or maybe anxiety about my brother’s diagnosis and ignored it, focusing instead on being there for my brother.
After a series of missteps and misdiagnoses (at one point I was diagnosed with “acid reflux”) mixed with an extra helping of excruciating pain for good measure, I finally ended up at the Mayo Clinic, a Stand Up To Cancer Dream Team Institution, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Here’s a hint: when a doctor walks into the room with plastic model of one of your organs in his hand, it’s never a good sign. In my case, it was a pancreas.
My pancreas (the real one, not the plastic one) had a tumor wrapped around the two arteries that lead into it. Surgery would be questionable. His recommendation was to start chemotherapy and to later have radiation to see how much the tumor might shrink.
I tried my best to stay strong. All of us in that room knew the odds of surviving. I had already lost two friends to pancreatic cancer. But all I could think of was that I had to keep optimistic. I would be no good to anyone, myself included, if I didn’t keep my chin up.
Here’s another hint: if you want to stay sane, never play “what if?” and “why me?”. Especially not in the middle of the night. What if I had had the CT scan two months earlier and hadn’t spent almost two months treated for acid reflux? Why, even though my family had always been healthy and active, did two of my four siblings have life-threatening cancer?
My nurse sister in Philadelphia informed me of one of the best pancreatic cancer researchers in the country, Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, who happened to be in Scottsdale. Dr. Von Hoff is the Physician-in-Chief, Senior Investigator of Translational Genomics Research Institute, and a Stand Up To Cancer Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team leader. So yes, I decided, he’d do.
Meeting with Dr. Von Hoff, Gayle – his nurse practitioner – and the rest of his team was a breath of fresh air. I learned that my tumor had probably been growing for 20 years; that the years I smoked in college and the few years afterwards could be a cause; that there are a higher number of people with pancreatic cancer who had tonsillectomies. In February 2011, Dr. Von Hoff started me on a trial of Gemcitabine and Abraxane. He told me we were going for “the cure.” Those two words were the most encouraging words I had heard yet.
Nine months of chemotherapy seems like a long time, but they went by in a blur. I had chemo at Mayo three times a month for scans and blood tests. For a cancer patient, these tests are nerve racking. They’re the “acid” test as to whether the treatment is working or not. They meant grueling days of fasting, waiting, IV lines being inserted, waiting, having blood drawn, waiting, dye being injected, waiting and finally, scans being done.
Throughout it all, I found strength through people I’d never expected. There was my dear husband Brad, of course, and my family and close friends. But there were also the friends from college I hadn’t seen in ages, even friends of friends I’d met only a handful of times. Here’s my last hint: if you don’t know if those cheesy little “get well soon” cards make a difference… they do.
One day I was in the lobby waiting room for yet another chemo session when, out of the blue, I received a call from my “little” friend, Kristi. Who wasn’t so little anymore. I had a hard time holding back tears. Fortunately, a grown woman’s crying in a chemo waiting room is more publically accepted than, say, the dentist’s office. This was the girl I’d tried to bestow with hope, confidence, and a feeling of being loved as a child. And here she was, just when I needed all those exact things so many years later, doing the same for me.
According to Dr. Von Hoff, my response to chemotherapy had been “remarkable.” Surgery under Dr. Douglas Evans followed shortly thereafter. I will never forget waking in the hospital on January 6, 2012, to the news that my doctor was able to remove the entire tumor. But with the good news came the tragic: my brother lost his battle with cancer on March 7, 2012. I was not well enough to travel to his funeral. About three months ago, one of my close friends was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to his liver.
I Stand Up for everyone facing pancreatic cancer, and hope they are able to find the same strength I did through family, friends and the little gifts of love and friendship that appear when you least expect them. I’ve been given the gift of life thanks to TGen, Dr. Von Hoff, my participation in the clinical trial, Dr. Douglas Evans, the best surgeon in the world and Dr. Donald Brooks, of Arizona Oncology, Tucson, the most caring oncologist ever and his staff. Now my goal, thanks to my treatment and care by these outstanding professionals, is to become my “old” healthy self, to be “there” for my family and friends as they were for me.
And I hope to reconnect in person with my not-so-little friend, Kristi, and pick up where we left off. Full circle.
Lexy Pfeifley grew up in Winfield, Kansas. She graduated from the University of Kansas. She has lived in Denver, Colorado over 30 years and spends her time between Tucson, Arizona and Denver. She has served as a board member of Anchor Center for Blind Children and been an active volunteer. She also serves on the Board of Stone Canyon Community Foundation, Tucson, and has been active with Denver Kids, Inc.
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