Does the Trauma of Cancer Ever Relent?

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A pancreatic cancer survivor shares how he copes with the never-ending fear of cancer taking his life.

I know I’m not alone in asking, “Does the trauma of cancer ever relent?”

Even seven years after getting the news I had pancreatic cancer, each day questions from the mundane, “What could I have done to avoid all this?” to the metaphysical, “Why did I survive this when so many others didn’t?” dog me. Each new twinge snaps me to attention. I wonder, “Did I overdo it in the yard? Or hit it too hard at the gym?” Or worse, “Is my cancer like that cyborg-assassin from the movie ‘Terminator’ back to try to take to me out once again?”

It would seem no matter how many months or years I put between my bout with it, when I look over my shoulder, I still catch a glimpse of its shadow at my heels. It stalks me without relent, reminding me (as if I needed a reminder) nothing holds it back from taking me.

Each time I start to feel somewhat normal, something else happens. Most recently it was new compression fractures to my T6 and T7 (thoracic) vertebrae. While they healed for a month to avoid a jolt of pain, I avoided twisting my upper body or stooping to pick something up. Although these fractures were minor compared to my first 70% compression fracture of T12 which had to be glued back together, they reminded me things will never be normal for me again. (My T-12 fracture happened while I was lifting a tire. This is how I discovered my osteoporosis courtesy of abdominal radiation.) Like I said, “Does this ever relent?”

Before these fractures, during one of my routine six-month follow-ups, my doctor mentioned, “Your scan shows what I think is a pancreatic cyst. I’m checking with another doctor to see what he thinks but he’s out this week. Depending on what he says, ‘we’ may need to order some additional tests.”

Catching her words mid-air, I said, “Why would ‘we’ wait?”

Nipped by my words, she said, “I’ll order the tests then.”

Soon I had an MRI followed by a scoping where a tissue sample was taken.

Days crawled by as I waited for my pathology results.

While it turned out to be a pancreatic cyst and not a new tumor, this event reminded me of how foggy my future is.

I could go on, but I won’t. It’s not lost on me how fortunate I am to have survived seven years where many don’t make it to two and few see five. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “The Notorious RBG,” had pancreatic cancer that was found early and made it to 11 years, while Alex Trebek of “Jeopardy” had a diagnosis that was found too late. He only made it to two years. This is not to mention Steve Jobs of Apple or Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, also a noted civil rights leader. All gone. All missed.

Not knowing what will happen next, I’ve taken to living each day as if it were a gift, because it is. While these days I take my life a day at a time, this has not stopped me from pursuing a third career teaching at a university, nor my passion to write. I’ve always been fascinated by how mere words stitched together possess a certain kind of magic – a magic to lay bare the truth. Within this truth, I’ve found it easier to find my footing to face anything, even this.

To help me to come to terms with how tenuous my future is, I wrote an account of my journey, “Gut Punched! Facing Pancreatic Cancer.” I wanted to offer hope and encouragement to the tens of thousands of others out there who feel nothing more can be done for them, that it’s over. Nothing left to do but to have some friends over for a graveside get-together.

I wanted to tell how I didn’t think I would be there for any of my three daughters’ big days. “Who gives this woman?” answered by blank silence. Yes, the very idea of each of my daughters walking the aisle alone at some wistful church as music sifted the air broke this father’s heart. Two of the three are married now. I’m holding on for the third.

Capturing my story forced me to face the brutal reality I still might not make it, which is not something anyone wants to consider, ever. But it’s a story that must be told, not for me but for others.

I love a recent TV commercial with a tagline that says, “Cancer is relentless but I’m relentless.” Even though it may seem the trauma of cancer never relents, we can keep going, we must keep going, we’re relentless!

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