Miriam shares her experience of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when she was 86 years old.
Up until my seventies, I lucked out with good health, enjoying a diet of fresh, home-cooked food and an active, outdoor lifestyle. But on my 75th birthday, my luck wavered. I developed bowel cancer. Amazingly, it was removed and ten more years went swimmingly by until a recurrence, also removed.
Coming home from hospital for the second time, my neighbour, a retired nurse, raised the alarm once again. She noticed my eyes, my skin, everything was bright yellow. “I’m going to my GP next week. I’ll ask him about it then,” I told her. “No,” she said, “you’re going RIGHT NOW.”
Her instincts were on the button. It was straight to the GP, on to a blood test, and, the following morning, immediate admittance to A&E with acute jaundice.
That summer was hospital-bound, with test after test and scan after scan. Eventually they found the source of the jaundice. I had pancreatic cancer. I was terrified. One of my closest friends had just lost a daughter to this particular cancer. It had been a long and terrible struggle. I didn’t think I could face that.
Despite my protestations, the specialist persuaded me to take some chemotherapy tablets. The tablets were capecitabine, but they were not as helpful as the doctor had hoped. I didn’t want to subject myself to anything that would make me feel nauseous, but I didn’t have a lot of options – the cancer would do that to me if the pills didn’t. In the event, the tablets didn’t make me feel sick, but they also didn’t stop the cancer from growing.
The only thing left was surgery. The charming surgeon I was sent to was confident that the cancer was operable – for now. I had to decide, fast. At 86, I wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of another major operation. I was inclined to let things take their course. But the surgeon persuaded me, as did the reassurance of a success story from a friend of a friend, like the one you’re hopefully reading now.
At last some good news: the Whipple’s procedure was a success. It totally removed my pancreas and thus the pancreatic cancer. My body can no longer produce insulin, which makes me effectively a type 1 diabetic, but learning to manage a condition that many people have anyway was a small price to pay for a cancer-free life.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. I contracted a superbug in hospital called C diff, almost impossible to shake off, that sunk me into despair once more. But modern medicine did its magic again and a faecal transplant (a transplant of healthy gut bacteria to help me fight the infection) led to a total turnaround and my complete recovery.
True, lengthy stays in hospital are no picnic. But the nurses, doctors, and physiotherapists did their utmost to alleviate the frustration and discomfort. And thanks to all their tireless work, and, let’s face it, a lot of luck, I’m now fully recovered and leading a healthy and fulfilling life. I can’t express enough how glad I am I went through the treatment, and that I’m alive to enjoy my children and grandchildren. Was the surgery painful and at times demoralising? Of course. But was it worth it? Absolutely.