Closer to Dad
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My parents, two older sisters and I have always been a very close-knit family—a bond that grew immeasurably stronger when my father was diagnosed with the unimaginable: pancreatic cancer.
In July 2020, my dad started experiencing abdominal discomfort and was diagnosed with pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas. The doctors suspected this was caused by cholangitis involving the gallbladder, so he was sent home and set up a surgery to remove his gallbladder a few weeks later. He went in for a surgery consultation, and the surgeon made an unexpected decision and a discovery that likely helped save my dad’s life—the surgeon insisted on having a gastroenterologist scope him before proceeding with the gallbladder surgery. However, instead of finding a damaged gallbladder, he found something much worse: a mass in the head of the pancreas.
I had a suspicion the appointment wasn’t going as planned because I had not heard from my mom in hours, and she typically updated my sisters and me promptly and frequently. A couple of days after the scope, we received the devastating news that my dad had pancreatic cancer. Since this was during the height of the pandemic and my sisters and I lived in different states, we gathered over Zoom to process what this shocking diagnosis meant. How could my dad, my role model and a healthy 61-year-old who routinely competed in triathlons and who had no family history of pancreatic cancer, now have this life-threatening disease?
We immediately rallied around my dad. I quickly booked a flight home to Minnesota, found a tenant to sublet my New York City apartment, and rented an apartment near my parents’ house for a year, where I was able to work remotely. My oldest sister already lived in Minnesota and my middle sister and her family also packed up their New Jersey home and moved to Minnesota. Despite the restrictions and uncertainty around the pandemic, we all needed each other and wanted to be in the same location, even if we were unable to gather indoors together.
While there was an incredible amount of uncertainty, my dad was fortunate the tumor was discovered at an early stage before it had metastasized, which is not the case for the majority of pancreatic cancer patients. The goal from the onset of this journey was to reach a point where my dad would be cured. He courageously endured 12 rounds of intensive chemotherapy (5FU), followed by 25 rounds of radiation, with the goal of reducing his tumor marker down to normal levels, so he would be eligible to undergo surgery that would provide him with the best chance for a cure. There were several complications, late night trips to the emergency room, and lengthy hospital stays throughout the year, and the chemotherapy and radiation caused side effects including neuropathy, weight loss and significant discomfort. However, these side effects were worth it, because the treatments brought his tumor marker down to normal levels.
My parents had consulted with two surgeons throughout the year, with the hope that my dad would become eligible for the Whipple procedure, a grueling 4- to 12-hour procedure where the diseased portion of the pancreas, as well as other organs such as the gallbladder, are removed and the digestive system is reworked. My parents weighed the pros and cons of using a local surgeon in Minneapolis, which would make post-surgery treatment and appointments easier, versus going to the Mayo Clinic, where Dr. Mark Truty, a world-renowned surgeon, could perform the Whipple procedure. In late June 2021, my parents consulted with a surgeon in Minneapolis, who declined to operate because after reviewing the latest scan, he believed the tumor had grown and was now involving a major artery, which would have required a resection that he was not comfortable performing. This news was scary and shocking to our family, as my dad had fought so hard to get his tumor marker in the appropriate range. However, undeterred, my parents travelled to Rochester, MN to visit Dr. Truty at the Mayo Clinic for further assessment, as they were known to operate under these circumstances. He reviewed scans and lab results and agreed to attempt the Whipple surgery. Dr. Truty warned us, though, that there was a chance he would open up my dad and find cancer in places that would prevent him from proceeding with the operation.
During the procedure, my mom and I spent our time trying to distract ourselves in the waiting room and wandering around the peaceful courtyard, hoping and continuously praying for a successful Whipple procedure. Throughout the day, we received several hopeful messages that the surgery was “going great” and that the doctors still needed a few more hours. After 9 hours, Dr. Truty met my mom and me in the waiting room, where we were thrilled to hear he performed the Whipple and successfully removed all of the cancer with zero margins. He explained that the cancer was not wrapped around the artery, and also how his team took numerous biopsies and ran tests to ensure the cancer was not in other parts of my dad’s body. This interaction with Dr. Truty was the best moment of my life; he saved my dad’s life, and my dad was now cancer free.
During treatment, we restricted visitors, given COVID and my dad’s severely weakened immune system. Despite this, we were fortunate to get a huge amount of support. My oldest sister devised a heartwarming and creative way to keep everyone informed about my dad’s condition while lifting his spirits considerably. She emailed friends and family asking them to record short video clips of themselves conveying something funny or inspirational for my dad. Every week, she compiled a handful of these videos for my dad to watch during his chemotherapy treatments. Many others supported through prayer and by showing acts of kindness, like my dad’s cousins who delivered fresh produce from their garden to my parents’ doorstep, or my friends, who sent treats from my favorite bakery in New York City. All of these thoughtful gestures had a significant impact on raising our spirits and helping my dad to stay motivated to fight. The amount of unexpected support and love from family, friends, and strangers helped our family get through the toughest moments. My mom was by my dad’s side through everything, a calming, strong, heroic champion who not only took care of my dad, but also helped my sisters and me process his illness.
Going through my father’s diagnosis and treatment gave me a new perspective on what is most important in my life. I had never experienced being that close to losing someone who I love so much. My whole family confronted the frightening reality that my dad could pass away, and that made us lean even more heavily on our spiritual faith. We tried to do absolutely everything within our power to fight and stay positive, and trusted God with the rest, understanding that outcomes may not go according to our plans. I learned to ask others for help when I needed it, which did not come naturally to me, and I tried to live following my father’s example of staying strong and faithful, even during the darkest days, and fighting for a positive outcome. We’ve since continued to lean on our faith, as it brought us so much love, support, light, and miraculous moments throughout the year. Each day is a gift, and not a given, and I’ve learned the importance of finding joy in each day.
I moved back to New York City after his surgery, grateful I had been in Minnesota to be with my family through the diagnosis, treatment, and Whipple, and hopeful the worst was finally behind us. However, during the first couple of months post-Whipple, my dad suffered from extreme weight loss and discomfort, primarily driven by complications and blockages that occurred as a result of the surgery. Dr. Truty assessed his condition and identified two areas where stents needed to be inserted; his recovery improved significantly after these operations. He continues to take pancreatic enzymes with each meal and hasn’t needed further chemotherapy or radiation treatments since his Whipple. He currently undergoes scans and lab work quarterly, and over the past year, his results continue to show improvements and no evidence of disease. We are beyond grateful.
I learned about the Lustgarten Foundation after having a conversation with a close friend who signed up to run in the TCS New York City Marathon on November 6, 2022. She suggested I join her, and I agreed to do it under one condition. Rather than just running, I wanted to fulfill a deeper purpose: I needed to raise money and awareness for pancreatic cancer research, because I know firsthand what it’s like to experience this devastating disease and I want to help others, so they don’t have to go through what my family experienced or what other patients and families have undergone due to pancreatic cancer.
Now that it’s a little more than a year since his Whipple, my dad is back to a healthy weight and has even completed an Olympic distance triathlon! We skied together in Vail 8 months after his procedure and we are also back to waterskiing on the lake together, our favorite pastime. If he can push himself to these accomplishments after everything he’s been through, then I can certainly push myself to run the 26.2 miles for the marathon! I will be excited to see friends and family cheering me on from the sidelines this November, as I proudly wear my Lustgarten purple and run to advance the research that has led my dad to being a pancreatic cancer survivor. Despite the race results and how long the course takes me, I have already won a much greater prize—more time with my father.