Deborah & Von
Deborah’s mother Von was 72 years old when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was later discovered it had spread throughout her body. Deborah talks about Von’s symptoms and caring for her at the end of her life.
My mother Yvonne (Von) was so full of energy and loved life. Physically very strong and fit. She always saw the positive side of everything, and I’ve always said she was the best person you could ever wish to meet. Of all people, we never thought she would be the one to get cancer – naïve I know, to have thought this.
Symptoms started to show
In mid February 2021, Von started feeling unwell with nausea and stomach pain. 2 weeks later she attended the out of hours clinic and was given paracetamol and codeine. She independently did a bowel screen test, and the result came back with no issues.
The pain increased and spread to her back, and was getting severe. She had X-rays, a CT scan and was booked for an MRI but had to wait for a month for the scan during which time the pain was constant and more intense.
We found out it was pancreatic cancer
The MRI took place and a few days later Von was admitted via 999 ambulance, my father and I have never seen anyone in so much pain. She was in hospital and we were unable to see her for the first 4 days due to COVID restrictions. Then we had a call to say we had ‘special permission’ to visit. At this point I felt something wasn’t right but was just glad to see her.
My mother, father and I sat in a room with a range of doctors and nurses to be told that the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer and it was very unlikely that surgery would be an option. From the point of feeling unwell to the diagnosis it took 2.5 months. When we were told, my world crumbled and I felt that life had changed in a second and would never be the same.
I subsequently sold my house and moved in with my parents and cared for my mother full time. My dad was a fantastic help but he wasn’t capable of doing it alone. The 3 of us have always been a team.
Treatment for symptoms
Von had a stent inserted into the bile duct. This was a fairly straight forward procedure.
Over the next few months Von had a range of medication to help with pain relief. It was all trial and error about what dose and regularity was best for her.
During this time, she was admitted to hospital via 999 and each time we never knew if we would see her again. She was given IV (intravenous) morphine and prescribed an anti-sickness drug (cyclizine) which she continued to take every day. Von also suffered from infections and was prescribed antibiotics.
In the June we had a little ray of light as Von had an appointment to see a pancreatic specialist. He gave a little hope as there was a possibility of an operation in 6 months’ time to remove the tumour, but Von had to have a PET-CT Scan first and also a course of chemotherapy to try and reduce the size of the tumour.
He also prescribed her Creon to help with food digestion. By this time her food intake had reduced dramatically, she was very weak and was unable to hold her own weight and had to use a wheelchair.
I would try all sorts of things to enable her to eat more, cutting food up really small and not putting too much in front of her as the sight of food made her ill. If she fancied anything I would go straight out to get it, day or night. She had increased bouts of violent vomiting and through the whole period of being unwell her bowel movements were often severe (or didn’t happen at all) but were always painful.
She couldn’t have the operation and tried chemotherapy
She was in such pain when she went for the scan but was determined to go as it could lead to a life-saving operation. A couple of weeks later the results were not what we wanted – the cancer had spread. We were devasted, it meant she couldn’t have the operation.
The only option after that was for palliative chemotherapy. It was hope to extend her life.
Von was prescribed a course of Gemcitabine and Abraxane (Nab-Paclitaxel). The first course went well, she felt fine, but after the second course began to feel unwell and immediately her hair started to fall out.
She also got a severe infection that resulted in a 999 hospital admission. She was put in isolation, as she had severe diarrhoea and vomiting.
She surprised the doctors as she survived the infection. The infection and everything it entailed, made her take the decision to end chemo and to manage the rest of her life with palliative medication.
Caring for Von at the end of life
By November she was malnourished, and very weak. At the beginning of November she asked me to take her away for a couple of days (I think she knew she didn’t have long left), so as a family the 3 of us (my dad, Von and me), went to West Wales where I rented a lovely cottage for us. The travelling was physically difficult for her but she and I knew it would be our last trip away together. My dad never felt this way, as he always thought she would get better.
3 weeks later, it got to the point where the pain and discomfort were too much and she said ‘I think it’s time for me to go to the hospice.’
We were able to be with her the whole time at the hospice. They got her comfortable straight away which was a Godsend. Within 2 days she went into a permanent state of sleep, and her life ended on the 5th day in the hospice on 27th November 2021 – 9 months from starting to feel unwell.
My mother was my best friend and soulmate. She and my dad were together for 54 years. We are both lost and desperately sad without her. We cared for her in the very best way we could and it was a privilege to be there for her. The amazing thing was through her whole ordeal she didn’t ever feel sorry for herself. She only ever thought how it was going to affect us and how we would continue and manage without her.
She will never be forgotten and in her name I continue to donate to Pancreatic Cancer UK and share the social media posts to raise awareness in the hope that research will find a test/cure.