A woman who no one in my family had met before died and I sobbed about it. She lost her battle with pancreatic cancer at about 11am last Sunday, according to a post on Facebook.
My dad, too, cried over the woman who we’d never met in person and didn’t really know– the woman in the picture with her death announcement was a total stranger to us. If we’d have seen a “healthy” Albie on the street, we would’ve walked on by without a second look. It was the same way with my mama. People who met her during her 8-month battle with pancreatic cancer were shocked at seeing the pre-disease pictures we’d chosen for her memorial service. This disease strips every inch of meat from its victim’s body until nothing remains but a half-alive skeleton. And it gets worse, so much worse.
My dad and I had just finished a greasy diner breakfast (note: challah french toast is king) and on our walk back to my apartment dad brought up Albie. Neither of us knew how she was doing and the last we’d heard she was taking a “much needed break” from her treatment beginning late July. We’d only ever communicated with Albie via Facebook since “meeting” her in a pancreatic cancer support group last fall. The newest post on her wall said Albie had passed away that morning, and my dad and I read in disbelief.
I get mad sometimes. I used to get mad all the time back when my mama was still fighting and it felt like our family lived at her cancer center. We were surrounded by sick people all the time. I was mad because while I spent all my time with people who were either dying, on the road to dying, or lucky and beating death to a pulp, other people kept on keepin’ on with living. I was mad because before I knew what cancer really was I’d also kept on keepin’ on with life. I’m doing it again, too. We all keep on keepin’ on by going to work, making dinner, working out at the gym, meeting up with friends, falling in love, getting married, buying table lamps and oval-shaped rugs and those damn decorative pillows, and we live our lives. It’s the way we’re supposed to live in a continuos and unaffected circle of life. And, I hate it.
I hate the saying: “keep on keepin’ on” mostly because it sucks. Not only has it grown cliche and too sorority (I’m a member of the tribe) but who the fuck in need was ever helped by shit staying the same? What progress has come from us keepin’ on keepin’ on with zero change?
I guess, I’m still kind of mad. I’ll tell you why. (Ha, of course, I will.)
One triumphant moment in my history of being the younger sibling was when I explained something to my big brother (aka my superior who I will never be as kewl as, ever) and he said: that’s a good point! Fellow baby sibs will understand this. This is not shit that happens for us v. often. My brother and I were sitting on our mama’s bed–we all took turns guarding her during those last weeks just in case the mighty angels came down and swept her away in chariots of fire or whatnot–it was our turn and we started debating her initial decision to have fought this stupid terminal disease. Coming out the gate 8-months ago, her doctors were clear on this is how it ends: she dies while her children sit on her bed watching. But she wanted to fight and she fought like hell. The side effects of chemo sucked the life out of her, though, and she suffered through the cycles of side effects like high fevers and intense weakness, plus exhaustion, and even more nausea, and this super weird cold-sensitivity thing forcing her to eat everything at room temperature and wear *gloves all the time.
So why go through with it all– the extra sickness and constant glove-wearing– if she was dying no matter what? Fair question. But, as I told my brother, someone’s gotta be the one to say no. Rosa Parks said no. She got arrested and didn’t get to ride the bus after her “no” but it definitely stirred shit up for the better. Something NOT okay was going on and because she had the courage to say no, despite the consequences, things changed. And it wasn’t an overnight change. IDK (history too well) if she ever got to enjoy the changes she put into motion that day… but, just like my mama, she decided things could not keep on keepin’ on.
Basically, I got my big brother to agree with me that our mom was a lot like Rosa Parks. (He was under a lot of mental and emotional stress back then.)
When it comes right down to it… the reason my mama (and Albie, most likely, also) died is because she starved to death. My mom stopped being able to eat at the end of March, and then her family and close friends had to watch starve to death. For weeks. Day and night. While we planned Easter dinner and then during the entire month of April. We watched her starve for a month and live without water for over 15-days until she died on April 28.
You mad too yet? Nope. Okay, I’ll keep on goin’ on.
My mom’s body stopped digesting solid food and eventually, when even our go-to liquid meal of chicken broth caused her severe pain until being vomited back up, her oncologists suggested (commanded) it was time for hospice care. I’ll remember this forever, of course. It’s imprinted in my soul: the day her oncologist had “reassured” us that her best bet at having more time was by going into hospice care, which my mom surrendered and agreed to, because continuing treatment would kill her. So, her best chance at surviving was to enter into a service that is designed for people who are dying, and they’re dying very soon.
One of the nurses put it best, “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.”
When our FB friend, Albie, posted a status saying she was taking a “much needed” break a few weeks ago, my dad and I shared the same thought of that’s not good. After my mama had died, Albie checked-in on us often. My dad and I prayed for her every day and talked about visiting, or meeting, her one day. I replied to her comment on my profile picture once saying how much I wished her the miracle my mama never got. She needed to beat this impossible cancer– for her self and her own family but also for my mama. Go, Fight, Win!
But, the pancreas doesn’t respond to chemotherapy. It’s used as palliative care to stop and/or slow the cancer from spreading. It was big, big news when the FDA approved the drug Abraxane for use along with the already used drug, Gemcitibine, in September 2013. Groundbreaking research was done for the discovery that together these two miracle drugs drastically improved the average survival… by two months. The lifespan of patients went from 6-months to 8-months! Woo! That’s the only advancement we’ve made in 20-years.
And yet no one’s called bullshit.
The Pancreatic Action Network (PANCAN) celebrated like it was 1999 again for two more months! No one had the balls to admit two months isn’t enough and we need to do more. Our patients, loved ones, moms and dads, brothers and sisters, children, trial test subjects, whatever these people are to we who care– need more than an additional two months.
Why should we demand more? Why should we care? As we keep on keepin’ by going to Soul Cycle, shopping at Whole Foods for only organic veggies, buying new shoes, being overall dang good people who donate to charity and don’t litter… why stop our lives and care more?
Because, pancreatic cancer will be the second leading cause of cancer deaths in 2020, according to the American Cancer Society stats. It’s moving from the fourth leading cause to the second in less than four and a half years. Add ten years, and it’s predicted that by the year 2030, the number of new pancreatic cancer cases will have doubled and the deaths will have almost tripled. Last year, 46,420 people were newly diagnosed and 39,590 people died.
This cancer is coming for you, or someone who you love even more than you, and there’s no cure. All you can do is plan what to do with the exciting gift of those extra two months.
*I got Mama a little present to cheer her up during the weird cold-sensitivity-thing, and also make her feel a little more useful around the house. It was good for her to feel like she still had purpose. I bought her fuzzy gloves that were made for dusting! She, however, did not wear them so it was a loss. Great idea, though, glove company!