After the Devastation of Pancreatic Cancer

Some experiences are seen through rose-colored glasses while others are hazy or ambiguous. Many, we try desperately to remember while others we we wish we could forget. And a special few help form our beliefs, who we are and who we strive to be.

A particularly inspiring professor once said: There are moments that change your life, and 10 years later if you know it in retrospect, you are blessed. But to know it, at that moment

Watching my grandfather go through pancreatic cancer was one of those times, when I knew life would change for so many of us. He was 240 pounds, six foot, one inch, and a tough guy who was a little rough around the edges. He found out about his cancer in July. A man of little financial means, he decided he didn’t want to fight with chemo given the burden that might be on my family to pay for it.

In making this choice, he also held his diagnosis a secret from the family for the next six months.

Pancreatic Cancer Stats

For those unfamiliar with the disease, pancreatic cancer has a reported five-year survival rate of nine percent. While that percentage is three points up from 2014, it is in my opinion that nine percent is much too low. Of course, there are other individual factors that determine each person’s outcome with this diagnosis. Detecting it early is critical to better results, but there are a lot of challenges to diagnosing pancreatic cancer promptly. To learn more about it, click here.

Keeping Pancreatic Cancer a Secret

To this day, I can’t imagine how my grandfather felt for those six months, carrying the weight of this awful news alone. By December of that year, he could no longer hide his rapid weight loss. He revealed his emotional and physical pain to my grandmother and parents first. When my mom told me, I had not yet experienced an illness that someone wouldn’t come back from.

Four months after divulging his diagnosis, he had lost 100 lbs and developed jaundice. The new and very temporary “normal” was him always resting in the hospital bed set up in my grandmother’s living room. I didn’t want to bother him so I would tip toe through the living room to get to and from the bathroom.

By June, I was doing my usual tip toe out of the living room, and in a strained whisper he asked me not to be afraid. He gathered the strength to sit up on the side of his bed and asked me to sit next to him. I could barely speak myself, shocked by how aggressive and swift this disease was.

As I was sitting next to him, he told me all of the things he wanted for me and my sister. I just kept nodding because I didn’t want to burst into tears and make everything worse. He gave me encouragement, using beautiful and eloquent words that he must have been thinking about all year. Here he was, getting unfairly ravaged by this cancer and giving me a pep talk.

I will never forget that conversation because it would be the last one where his voice was able to respond to mine.

A little over a week later he died. It changed all of us forever. I’ve never seen a cancer attack someone in that way. In the moment, it was ugly, horrific, and emotionally, physically and spiritually destructive.

With that said, I knew at the time that this experience would help mold many of my beliefs and who I wanted to become. While this is only my experience and not those of anyone else, I held on tight to his last words to me and never let go. I wanted to become everything he had hoped for me, and to this day, I still think about what he said in making certain decisions.

His illness didn’t define him or his life, but the experience we went through together had a profound effect on how I make decisions, whether it’s always being honest, telling people how I feel, and striving for happiness; his words still resonate.

Learning to Heal at College

Not long after this experience, I started working in a lab at my university using this software for virtual reality projects in testing people’s psychological reactions to stimuli. This professor had previously worked in our lab and created the software I was using. He too was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and as I am sure he was a great inspiration to many, he helped me get through comprehending many aspects of life, even while he was dying. Being able to work in a place to help carry his legacy meant a great deal to me after the trauma of my grandfather’s cancer.

If you haven’t watched his lecture below, I highly recommend it to anyone, whether or not you’re in the pancreatic cancer community. Jai, his caregiver and wife at the time, has also released a novel on her experiences with becoming a caregiver, and life afterward.

Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month

I believe it’s only right the pancreatic cancer community #DemandBetter options. While I hope this doesn’t happen to anyone, I know that’s not a completely realistic option. So I hope for better diagnosis processes and treatment for all who come up against this disease. While this month is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, know that all year and every day, you have people fighting for you.


Jessica Gladwell

Jessica Gladwell

Jessica Gladwell is one of PW's consultants and patient editors. She has lived with late-stage, chronic Lyme and POTS since circa 2002. She has also served as a caregiver to close family members with late-stage, chronic Lyme. Before diagnosis, she served as a business consultant for a large corporation and PM for a small digital branding agency. Now, she is proactive in the rare and neurological disease community, spreading awareness and advising on matters of health and lifestyle when living with a chronic illness.

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