William Ramshaw resides in the expansive Pacific Northwest. He is a six-year survivor of pancreatic cancer and has written a memoir Gut Punched! Facing Pancreatic Cancer.
It's important for cancer survivors to recognize the major milestones and anniversaries in their cancer journey. Even if it's an anniversary they didn't want.
From before anyone can remember humankind has been keeping track of days to remember. July 4th, Pearl Harbor Day December 7th, D-Day June 6th, and 9/11 to name a few. And of course, special days like birthdays or weddings. For some reason, we all just do it without Nike telling us to.
Sadly, many of us cancer survivors can tell someone the month and year, if not the day and time, of our last treatment. I remember mine being a bleak January day with piles of soot-covered snow filling the roadside ditches. Too often this time of year brings back sour memories. Nothing to celebrate but rather something to forget— but we must remember.
Another year. Another chance to leave our mark. An opportunity to create memories both for us and others.
Seven years ago, I faced not just some cancer but pancreatic cancer, a type where only five out of a hundred see five years. While I am happy to have survived it, it’s an anniversary I didn’t want.
Looking back, I know more about a pancreaticoduodenectomy, the infamous Whipple Procedure, than I ever wanted to know. Getting through it was brutal. Minutes, before I went under my surgeon, had told me. “When you wake up, you’ll feel like you got hit by a truck.” I didn’t know he met a truck without brakes driven by some crazy person who would back up and run me over again. The sight of blood, especially mine, makes me squeamish. The last time I cracked open a biology textbook was in high school. I doubt the plastic dummy we tore apart and put back together again even had a pancreas. Thus, I found myself ill-equipped to handle getting poked and prodded night and day. Much less getting told in vivid detail what they planned to do to me next.
Around this time each year, I am reminded of my weeks in the hospital, first from the Whipple to remove my tumor and then weeks and weeks back in the hospital facing one complication after another, this mixed with radiation and chemo. Bruised and bloody I somehow pulled through. Who knows why? One of my favorite quotes is from Craig Groeschel who said, “If you’re not dead, you’re not done.”
Although I would like to credit my survival to something I did I realize much of it has been dumb luck. After I turned yellow like a ripe banana a scan showed my bile duct was blocked. This resulted in a trip to the ER where further scans found a tumor sucked up next to my bile duct. Looking back had I not gotten so sick so fast I would not be writing this article.
Early in my treatments, I realized I was at best in a leaky kayak drifting down an uncharted river fraught with treacherous rapids. I found all I could do was to take it one treatment rapidly at a time and not worry about what horrendous rapids might lay downriver.
Back in those days, I did a lot of praying (and still do), but I resolved to paddle like hell and not just drift along with everything that was happening to me. I forced myself to learn to shoot the treatment rapids, the surgery, the chemo, and the radiation. This trek was nothing like anything I had ever done in my life and I pray I never have to do it again.
Getting through these churning rapids skirting around the monstrous boulders where many are dumped out into the icy water and sadly drown has given me a new perspective on life, my life. It is an undeserved gift at best. None of us are guaranteed a number of days. None of us. We have what we have, no more.
Before getting caught in the rapids of cancer, like most, I worked to survive each day to call it a week only to plow headlong into the next Monday. Now I realize the gift of days I have been given. This has forced me to slow down, something very challenging for a lifelong Type-A “no time to smell the roses” person like me, but slow down I needed to do.
Amid this one of the hardest things for me has been losing good friends to a garden variety of cancers. This has made me sad beyond words. It has made me wonder how I somehow got down the river and they didn’t. This survivors' guilt is something many survivors face. All this has made me commit to living my life out loud. Rather than play it safe I have vowed to live every day as if it were my last because it just might be. I need to live the days my friends didn’t get to live. Even by celebrating an anniversary, I didn’t want to.