When I learned that November was Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, my friend Tara and her mom, Lori immediately came to mind. I spent almost every Sunday afternoon (and a lot of other time) at Tara’s house for a couple of years during high school—after I finally, at Lori and Tara’s insistence started just walking into the house, I’d instantly be greeted by Lori with a “Hiya, Kid!”, just as she greeted her own daughters. During this time, in our grade 12 year, Lori was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Today, Tara is here to share a bit of her family’s experience, and about her mom’s story. I’ve also included some snippets from Lori’s blog, and links so that you can read about the journey in Lori’s own words.
Hi Tara! Thanks for taking the time to share about your mom, and her story today. Let’s start with you—tell us a bit about yourself.
I have a pet cat, Franklin, back in Winnipeg (though it’s technically my uncles they say I have to take him when I move out cause I’m his favourite toy they’ve ever given him). For work. I am in the Natural Resource Compliance Program at Lethbridge College to become a Park Warden. I like fishing, hiking and going on long walks.
My family includes my late mother Lori, Father Cliff, Sister Kyra and my Aunt and Uncle Berta and Warren.
Tell us a bit about your mom.
Lori and her horse, Pearl, at Berta and Warren’s farm.
My mother was an Administrative Assistant at the River East Transcona School Division, her title was “Executive Secretary to the Secretary Treasurer”. She loved to read long and complicated books, drink tea and tat.
You know how much I love your mom’s job title, still.
Tell us your mom’s story.
The first symptom she had for her pancreatic cancer was being itchy. Especially on the palm of her hands and the bottom of her feet. She would wake up in the middle of the night and use a knife to try to relieve the itch.
Itchiness in those places are a sign of hepatitis, so our family doctor tested her for both types of hepatitis but the results came back as negative. From there they decided something must be wrong with her liver so they did a scan and found a lump on her pancreas pressing against her liver, giving her the symptoms of hepatitis.
From Lori’s Blog: I’m lucky. My cancer leaned against the bile duct to my liver and partially closed it off, causing hepatitis (so I really do have hepatitis). The hepatitis caused the unbearable itch that send me looking for medical help. The ultrasound my doctor ordered to get a better look at my sick liver found the growth. Yippee for me!
What was your family’s response when you learned about her cancer diagnosis? How did it affect you?
She told my sister and I at the same time. Kyra went to best friend at the time Alex’s house, and I went to a friend’s house as well. I was upset and a little shocked. I knew that there was something wrong though so I think, out of everyone, I took it the most calmly. I also did volunteer work for breast cancer awareness so I think that helped me prepare for the worst.
I wasn’t around when she told anyone else. Dad was upset but put on a strong front.
Nana and Grandpa, Mom’s parents, came to live with us [from out of the province] during her treatment. [Editor’s note: Lori wrote often on her blog about going on outings with her mom. I, personally, remember both of Tara’s grandparents being around, but specifically her grandpa making us animal shaped pancakes when I visited on Sundays!]
My mom and Aunt [Berta] had a fall out when I was about 6 years old and between being 6 and 16 I had never seen them. Because of this I got my Aunt and Uncle [Warren] back and they have been my strongest source of strength and support in the long run.
Kyra was in her first year of University. She dove into her college work and hid in her room a lot. She did not take it well but kept herself together as best as she could by keeping herself busy.
During the year of her illness, things were tense. I was in my final year of high school and was part of every school performance and Chair of the Teens Against Drunk Driving group. I kept myself busy and out of the way of the house because it was cramped. I spent time with my mom on the weekends.
Nana, Grandpa and Dad spent the most time with Mom and taking care of her.
After her death is when things became… difficult.
What were things like? How did things change?
Kyra and I were not in the loop on anything, not because we didn’t ask but because we were… Not lied to, but were told the half truth. We were treated like we were 6 and 7, not 17 and 19. Family relations fell apart, and things were never the same again.
Dad began partying and spending mom’s money recklessly. There was nothing we could do about it because it was in her will for everything to be left to him.
Nana and Grandpa went back home to Lloydminster after we were forced to sort through mom’s things, the day after her death.
Kyra moved out about a year later and graduated from university about 4 years after that. She became a teacher and is doing well, all things considered.
I stayed home for about 4 years. I took care of the house and Dad, and worked at Subway part-time. I tried University and then College but never took to anything. I then moved in with my Aunt and Uncle because I couldn’t stay home any longer, I couldn’t handle the lack of stability.
Read my final thoughts, below, about why things went to hell, and how to prevent it from happening.
Through her experience, your mom shared her story on her blog–do you think this was helpful for her? What about for you/your family?
It was helpful in keeping all of her friends in the loop with what was going on. This way she only had to say something once instead of repeating it over and over again. I do believe it was a good method in that case.
As for emotionally it helped in her venting. She also kept a diary for the things she didn’t want to talk about on the internet so I know both helped her.
I didn’t really read the blog until after her death. At the time I thought my sister and I were being told everything about what was going on. Later on I found out I wasn’t told anything but I digress…
What do you wish people knew about pancreatic cancer that you learned from your mom’s experience?
There isn’t much I can say to this. Most people with pancreatic cancer only live for a week after being diagnosed. It is one of the cancers in the “silent killer” category.
We were lucky the tumour pressed against the liver and gave mom a fighting chance.
From Lori’s Blog: [P]ancreatic cancer is one of those dreadful cancers that lies hidden and silent, giving only vague indications of its presence, until it is too late to remove it. People are often diagnosed with all sorts of other digestive ailments before anyone thinks to check for cancer of the pancreas. […] Some people might think I’m treating this situation lightly with my “Yippee” a paragraph ago. But honestly, it’s how I feel about it because I spent a week thinking that I had six months at the outside to live and feeling unutterably sad and miserable. I started planning my funeral. […] I have had a reprieve. The executioner has been told to put his axe away for a while. I have cancer, yes, but I have OPERABLE cancer. It will be a fight but I will survive.
(September 12, 2008 – The Story So Far . . . .
Editor’s Note: Lori’s blog makes it evident that she was acutely aware the direction things were heading—she remained very optimistic, but realistic, even into the Spring. At the time of this post near her diagnosis in September, her primary goal was survival past Tara’s high school graduation in June—she accomplished that goal and then some.
Given the course pancreatic cancer normally takes, quickly, I take the same message from both Lori and Tara’s words: early diagnosis is not common, but even if the tumour is inoperable, early diagnosis and treatment can provide more time in some cases—and this in itself is important to a lot of people.
What advice would you offer families in a similar situation to what you went through with your mom?
Don’t keep anything a secret from your loved ones. Even if they are still a child, teenager, or young adult, explain what is going on to keep them in the loop.
As an example, I didn’t know Mom stopped treatment at Christmas, that she gave up. Her rapid decline in health wasn’t a shock to me at the time because I knew we were dealing with cancer; however, I wasn’t told until 2015 that she made the decision to stop treatment and that was 6 years after her death. It hurt.
That is just one example, but not keeping your family in the loop can be very painful to them, so tell them your will, tell them what you want at your funeral, if you even want a funeral, don’t lie and don’t hide, whether or not you get good news or back news. It may hurt for them to hear at the time, but it helps them cope and be prepared for the worse in the long run. Not only that but it keeps the family together after the passing. No matter the type of relationship, secrets tear relationships apart. Be open and honest with each other.
Thank you, Tara, for sharing your thoughts—and for your promise to keep your mom’s blog online. Visit Lori’s blog, Eviction Team, for a more in-depth look at Lori’s experience with pancreatic cancer. As I read through her blog again for this interview, I found myself laughing at Lori’s humour which is so evident in a lot of her posts. Really, as I messaged Tara, I’m sure that was really just bored wherever she is now and just wanted to make some tea and watch me laugh for the evening. And because I am certain of this—Thanks, Sunday Mom, for sharing your story.