By Janice Rightmer
In early February 2011, my husband Ken was living his life normally.
Just a few weeks later, things took a turn for the worst when he had to go to the ER with jaundice.
Blood work, x-rays and an ultrasound revealed a tumor in his pancreas. His cells were biopsied and tested positive for pancreatic cancer.
Our local doctor said he had three to six months to live.
Getting a second opinion at MD Anderson
Having grown up in Houston, we'd heard about MD Anderson. Unable to accept the first doctor's prognosis, we gave them a call.
When I lived in Houston 50 years ago, it seemed like there wasn't much hope when people went to MD Anderson.
But as we discovered during our first visit, it's now a place where hope abounds.
MD Anderson did a CT scan and blood work and diagnosed Ken with Adenocarcinoma of the pancreas.
Our doctor, David Fogelman, M.D., explained Ken's pancreatic cancer treatment options using chemotherapy. Radiation and surgery weren't options given the tumor's size and location.
Other than being slightly jaundiced, his illness hadn't affected him noticeably at that point. But with time, he began losing strength and his pain grew.
Ken began chemotherapy in late March, using cisplatin, gemcitabine and Tarceva.
However, Ken had gallbladder issues, so his next chemotherapy was postponed for about two months. During that time, a local clinic administered FOLFIRINOX, which lasted six hours. A portable device was attached for a two-day infusion at home.
Side effects of cancer treatment
Ken was mildly nauseated and was treated with ABH (Ativan, Benadryl and Haldol). He experienced mild diarrhea which was controlled with loperamide, and mouth sores that were treated locally with something labeled Magic Mouth. It helped.
After about four or five chemotherapy treatments, Ken returned to MD Anderson for a CT scan. The tumor had shrunk a small amount.
Ken began having problems with edema, low platelets and mild confusion, which made it difficult for him to continue with chemotherapy. His last chemo was administered shortly before Thanksgiving.
Sadly, another CT scan after that showed the tumor remain unchanged.
A family of caregivers
Caring for Ken was becoming a huge job. It became a family effort.
Our daughters cooked, watched the clock and administered Ken's meds.
We documented everything so everyone would know when to administer medication, especially for pain. If his medication was too low, he would be in a lot of pain, but too much would cause him to oversleep.
All-nighters and errands were my job. I also helped with and knew where we were with meals, medications and appointments, and kept up with cleaning, washing and baths for Ken.
Our grandsons helped getting Ken up from a chair, slip support stockings on his legs and get him in and out of the car for treatments. Along with the rest of our family, our granddaughters helped him have the best life possible.
Our strong support system
Dr. Fogelman returned our calls and emails promptly and helped with getting whatever medications we needed. He always advised us about what to do next. We appreciated his help.
Our church family loved us, prayed for us, visited and prepared meals.
I couldn't have made it without help from so many.
At the end, after several hospitalizations due to infections, delirium, fever, severe weakness, agitation and depression, Ken returned home, and died quietly on March 3, 2012.
I miss Ken deeply.
Gratitude for MD Anderson
Dr. Fogelman, who kept his promise to do all he could for Ken, recommended counseling for me, so I made an appointment with a therapist.
I'm much better today than a year ago.
I've come to realize that every experience is a gift. Cancer brings sorrow and darkness, but it has its own unique wonder. There is so much more to life than I ever imagined.