Health and wellness

Beating pancreatic cancer: one woman’s story of how she survived a stage four diagnosis

  • A Post contributor who was told she had as little as six months to live explains how her tumour is now stable and she is off painkillers
  • A radical diet change, releasing suppressed emotions and embracing social support are among her survival tips
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2019, 10:19am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 7:45pm

A cancer diagnosis can be a crushing blow; a late-stage one even more so. But knowing who to turn to and having trusted friends to guide you along the journey can have a crucial impact on your ability and motivation to beat the odds.

Here, a Post contributor who wishes to remain anonymous shares how she survived a late-stage pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

My husband’s face turned an acute shade of pain – an image I still try hard to forget. The associate professor in general surgery had walked in, done a perfunctory analysis of my CAT scan and pronounced I had stage four pancreatic cancer. He was brusque, giving me six months to live, perhaps a year with chemo.

Job done, he walked out and left us to a subordinate who administered a mini science lesson on the human pancreas and assigned me to the oncology department. We had waited for about 90 minutes for this scheduled appointment in mid-May last year. I had been writhing in physical pain, and my husband had been beside himself, not knowing how to help.

This was the closest major hospital to our home in central Singapore. In August 2017, a specialist whom I had consulted there about an inexplicable surge in my blood sugar had turned down my request for a CA 19-9 cancer tumour marker blood test. Any result would be inconclusive and not useful, he said. This was despite the fact that my mum had died of pancreatic cancer.

Now here I was, 10 months later, weighing 24kg (53 pounds) less, with an inoperable tumour. My confidence in the doctors there evaporated, so we switched hospitals. I trusted that God would see us through and had good plans for us.

At the National University Hospital, the surgeon explained my condition and options, gently and in sufficient depth. He noted many new treatments had become available since 2013 when mum had been diagnosed, and that I was 57, not 77 like mum had been. He urged me to consider chemotherapy and said I could stop if I felt I couldn’t tolerate it. His warm, inclusive approach comforted my husband, who paused work to be with me 24/7. His unconditional support has had a huge impact on my healing.

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I tasked our gentle and stoic younger son Daniel with taking notes, while the surgeon answered all our difficult questions with clarity and kindness. We had asked our long-time friend Sam to be there to help understand the options and guide our decision making.

The bottom line: even with chemo, the medical prognosis was six months to a year, as chemo sometimes has no effect. The surgeon referred me to an oncologist and promised to hold my hand every step of the way.

Sam’s inspiring rally call was, “We will do whatever you need and want J. You must fight this with every cell of your body, and we are all behind you, with every cell in ours!”

A positron emission tomography, or PET, scan confirmed that it was the same adenocarcinoma pancreatic cancer that had felled my strong-willed mum within three months of diagnosis. Vivacious and physically active till then, mum had lived through the second world war. As a child she had walked miles to school. She had been more robust than me, even in her early 70s.

My first hurdle was to stop comparing my condition to that of my mother’s. My “inner circle” of friends and advisers steered me towards healing and positivity. I let go of baggage, clutter and negativity and began to seek out positive energy.

For peace of mind, I wound up my financial affairs, with help from Daniel. My energy levels were low and I had some frustrating exchanges with bank staff.

My dear and only sibling arrived from Germany and helped me think by gently asking questions. He himself felt a whole lot better after seeing me upbeat and encircled by much love, support and laughter.

Within my inner circle were those who were against chemo and wanted me to only engage in alternative healing. Nothing was straightforward and I needed to focus

I am sure the millions diagnosed with cancer in this digital age find the onslaught of information and communication overwhelming. We set up critical chat groups to help us manage. Our older son Damien, who was in Canada at university then, steered research for treatment options and healing, checking out the veracity of the dozens of articles on cancer treatments sent to us. My “nutrition angels” took turns to prepare my meals, based on information filtered by our research team. At the time I could only manage soups and vegetarian meals. I was still losing weight and strength.

I began to drink bone broth, which has proved to be strengthening. I am off dairy (although I take eggs to prop up falling albumin levels), wheat and red meat. I avoid sugar, but allow myself fruit. I have my tea with organic coconut milk, load up on shiitake and oyster mushrooms, and have a brew from organic papaya leaves to boost my falling blood platelet count after having chemo.

Damien also set up social media platforms for concerned loved ones overseas to keep them informed, relieving me of emotionally draining communication. I needed the space to eat, exercise, rest and focus on next steps.

My husband would reply on my behalf on various chat groups. I remember one evening when he abruptly exited us from a chat group involving some overzealous individuals from an alternative healing medical facility, who were screaming at me not to start chemo scheduled the next day.

Within my inner circle were those who were against chemo and wanted me to only engage in alternative healing. Nothing was straightforward and I needed to focus. For me this meant praying in silence and listening. I added to this regime some powerful yogic breathing.

Whether they agreed or not, my inner circle supported every decision I made. My childhood friend Shaz had left a high-profile job a year earlier and was studying organic farming techniques and healing. She immediately turned to her two sifus, or masters, for advice. Flying in from Malaysia, she got me started on a powerful morning protocol comprising a whole lemon squeezed in warm water, Beijing grass tea, propolis and organic extra virgin coconut oil.

When the chemo side effects wear off, my childhood friends come over and we sing, get silly and laugh like we always have

I remain grateful and open to these gifts of healing – and they keep coming. A friend brings me an efficacious mushroom-based elixir from Estonia, while another sent a Kangen alkaline water dispenser. I believe cancer cells do not breed in a happy and alkaline environment.

At the time of diagnosis, I was in considerable pain. One late night when the pain was quite unbearable, we turned to our dermatologist friend Jan in England where it was still afternoon, who was able to offer guidance on safe maximum doses of painkillers we had at hand. The next day, the cancer clinic staff dispensed a big bottle of morphine for me that appeared to be enough to kill a small herd of buffalo. When Jan advised me to tap palliative and hospice resources, it sounded too dire.

“The oncologists aren’t thinking of pain management and the palliative guys who are good at this aren’t in the picture,” she explained. “It’s important to advocate for your needs in the health system.”

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The major hospital closest to home has a good palliative department. What looked like an end-of-life thing to do turned out to be practical and positive. My pain was better managed almost overnight. I began to eat and sleep better, and chemo’s aftermath eased.

Chemo had started on a painful note as I had rejected my oncologist’s recommendation to insert a port under my collar bone for easier access. During my second chemo session the nurses were in despair, struggling to get the chemo drugs in through my thin arms and shy veins. My doctor seized the opportunity to have me agree to have the device surgically inserted – making chemo sessions so much easier.

My doctor’s advice is reassuringly just an email away. My prayer angels, who come from various belief backgrounds, send me positive energy to help me through the doldrums. One went on a pilgrimage and stood in for me at healing sessions. When I feel pain, I tap into this spiritual reservoir. My discomfort and fear simmer down. A placebo? Perhaps. But it is real and palpable enough to me. When the chemo side effects wear off, my childhood friends come over and we sing, get silly and laugh like we always have. This, too, is invaluable for body and soul.

I also depend on an array of essential oils to combat toxins, pain, nausea and other discomfort. They work beautifully for me with no side effects.

Shaz urges me to visualise specific happy occasions I want realised in the future. “Believe it will happen,” she says. I plan to go cuddle and play with my five-year-old nephew and three-year-old niece in Germany. We are also considering a visit to an ayurvedic health spa in India, while Sam is planning a group holiday.

I am positive that there is something for me beyond chemo. The doctor says results from my biopsy specimen sent to the United States indicate I am a candidate for a trial of a more targeted drug. My research team has also advised me to look at overseas trials for CAR-T immunotherapy which are beginning to target solid tumours. My homeopath says homeopathy could also offer some remedies. I remain open and prayerful.

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Six months on, I continue to count my blessings. After 17 chemo sessions my tumour is stable and I am off all painkillers. I am particularly grateful that my CA 19-9 tumour markers have declined from 2,000+, to 1,000+, to 340+, to 133+ (normal is below 34). I continue to visualise further healthy decline. I have gained seven kilograms and try to stay active, with my pedometer clocking five kilometres on good days.

We seem to be doing it right. Kelly Turner, author of Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, cites a number of factors common in those who have beaten the odds: radical diet change, taking control, following one’s intuition, using herbs and supplements, releasing suppressed emotions, boosting positive emotions, embracing social support, and deepening spirituality.

My loved ones went into overdrive celebrating my birthday in November. Daniel, who had put on hold his plans for a gap year from university to kick-start his music career abroad, released his first original song on Spotify as his gift. Greener Grass made it to several top hits lists locally and internationally.

Some of his lyrics resonate: “I’ll stay on this long road to the other side. My momma told me it’s OK to cry. So I’m gonna try … It’ll take some time but I’ll get there and I’ll see the greener grass.”

Yes, it is OK to cry, but stay positive and on course to greater healing.