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.
A pancreatic cancer survivor offers other patients tips he has learned along his journey to help them get through their treatments.
For me, facing pancreatic cancer proved to be the toughest fight of my life. Months of treatment, now followed by years of wondering if it will come roaring back, haunt me. Even today I have bleak memories of the surgery that almost killed me, followed by weeks of radiation and then more weeks of chemotherapy.
Only now can I even think about what I’ve been through. Only now have I been able to jot down some of the things I learned.
So, how do you get through cancer treatments?
With so much going on —endless doctor’s appointments, being poked and prodded, scan after scan, yet another blood test, new aches in places we didn’t know we had — it becomes even more necessary to communicate what is going on. No one can offer to help us if we don’t talk about what’s happening. Not just the incidentals that come with our treatments but how we’re feeling inside.
The trauma of treatments affects everyone in different ways. For me, I focused on the science of it to distract me. For instance, I found the linear accelerator radiation machine to be scary cool. In so many ways it looked like a spaceship, silvery and sleek. In the face of this darkness, others become moody or worse. We each face our treatments in our own way. But face them we must.
On more than one occasion, I’ve been tempted not to tell my doctor about a new ache or pain for fears this would lead to yet another round of testing, scans and bloodwork. And as a result, more days waiting for the results. All along, I would be dreading my cancer was back. But early in my treatments, my doctor made it very clear to me that I had to be truthful and honest no matter what. She let me know that if she was to be my doctor she needed to know “everything” that was going on. Even today I am thankful for her directness.
Give Up Control
Some say, “You must lose your life to save it.” I would agree. So much of cancer is outside of our control. Trying to control it is like trying to hold water in our hands. At most, we can clutch a teaspoon or two. The rest leaks out. Thus, trying to control the course of our cancer is useless. It leads to frustration and if pushed hard enough to all kinds of other issues. The best any of us can do is to do what our doctors tell us and let those closest to us love on us.
Use Common Sense
We might not have years of medical education from a leading university, but we still have common sense. If our doctors tell us something that doesn’t make sense, question it. In 2016, a study by Drs. Martin Makary and Michael Daniel at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine showed that the third leading cause of death in the U.S. was attributed to medical errors. Many doctors are overworked, especially now in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic, and thus are more apt to make a mistake. Given this, a simple question may cause your doctor to reconsider the direction they want to take and take another look at your test results to make sure they didn’t miss something. Maybe they’ll ask a colleague to look at your case, or maybe they’ll order additional testing. Question things that don’t make sense.
Center is another word for focus. Samuel Johnson once said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Cancer is one of those life events, that brings focus to us. It concentrates our mind. We now see the small things we looked past for years. Focus on getting through your treatments.
During my treatments, my mental state was rickety at best. I feared the surgery to remove my tumor, followed by radiation and chemo would not stop my pancreatic cancer or even slow it down. Many nights as I waited for the hydrocodone to rock me to sleep, I found prayer and meditation to be helpful. Simply realizing I am but a speck of dust in the universe calmed me. Rather than fixate on my dire situation, I consider others who may be facing far worse stuff than me. Rather than pity myself, I decided to be grateful for my small wins. A negative test. A nurse’s kindness. A dinner with good friends. The closeness with family.
Many clinics offer in-house counseling services. These counselors are trained in dealing with those of us facing cancer. So, if prayer and meditation aren’t cutting it for you, don’t be afraid to explore this option. If we are a stress-ball, we cannot participate in our care. This is a lose-lose situation. Maintain calm.
These are but five things I’ve learned along the way about dealing with my cancer and its sordid treatments. There are many more, but these will do for now.