When Cancer Strikes Twice
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by Catherine Ferris
Who gets struck with two unrelated cancers within just three years? I confronted the heartbreak, and the cruelty, of that question—an experience seared into my mind that I think about every day, wondering if I could have done anything differently when this happened to my mom, Elizabeth.
As one of eight siblings and a mother of four kids, Mom was the center of our large extended family. She cooked for everyone, organized family events, and even knitted baby blankets and clothes to celebrate the births of our newest relatives. In fact, several of my cousins called her their “favorite aunt” because she was the glue holding our family together.
In 2018, following a routine colonoscopy, Mom was diagnosed with colon cancer, but luckily, it was caught early. She had surgery and didn’t need any follow-up treatment. She was vigilant about going to follow-up appointments, as her doctors continued to monitor her closely to prevent a recurrence. In February 2021, my mom, 77, went for a routine abdominal CT scan, and we were again so relieved when the scan showed no evidence of disease.
Then, in April 2021, she started experiencing abdominal pain so severe she went to the emergency room. My sisters, brother, and I feared it was a recurrence of her colon cancer, and we were in complete shock and dumbfounded when the abdominal CT scan ordered in the emergency room—just two months since her last one—revealed advanced pancreatic cancer that had already spread to the liver. Unlike her colon cancer, surgery was not an option.
When I received the doctor’s call that Mom had pancreatic cancer, it felt like a punch to the stomach. I kept replaying the past few years in my mind when she was so lethargic that sometimes she could barely stand. At first, we assumed it was a result of the colon cancer surgery, but as the exhaustion persisted, we visited numerous specialists who evaluated her for everything from depression to heart disease. However, no one ever mentioned it could be pancreatic cancer, and at the time, we didn’t know my mom’s sister had passed away from pancreatic cancer at just 58. I kept asking myself, what signs did I miss, and could I have prevented this terrible diagnosis?
I had to break the news of Mom’s stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis to my three siblings. We were shocked and crying, which was so different from our mom’s stoic reaction. She never felt sorry for herself and accepted her diagnosis, never believing the disease would kill her. My siblings and I took turns caring for her at home while she underwent chemotherapy treatment, and it was devastating watching her suffer. To help us cope, it was so important for my mom and our entire family to be hopeful, lean on each other for support, and have a positive attitude, even in the face of this life-threatening disease.
Unfortunately, Mom became so sick and weak from the chemotherapy that she ended up in the hospital for a week, where she made the difficult decision to stop chemotherapy treatment. When she was discharged from the hospital, we arranged for her to receive hospice care at her home. However, she was soon transferred to a care facility when she was no longer able to walk. She died in the facility in October 2021, just six months after she had been diagnosed, leaving a gaping void in our family that will never be filled.
Living on Long Island, I had heard of the Lustgarten Foundation, and I reached out to the staff because I knew I wanted to do something in 2022 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of her passing. Because my sister Karen and I are avid runners, we decided to organize and host the first Elizabeth Ferris Memorial 5K Run/Walk in Heckscher Park on Long Island, a place we took Mom on walks and my favorite running spot. We were so fortunate my son works for Elite Feats, a company that coordinates races, and the company was incredibly generous with building a website and promoting the race, held on October 23.
We arranged for sponsorships from local businesses, and more than 100 people completed the race, including a support squad for a pancreatic cancer patient whose family came to walk in his honor, while he watched from his wheelchair. So many of my relatives attended that it felt like a family reunion, which is exactly what Mom would have wanted! And the best part is we raised $10,000 for the Lustgarten Foundation, in memory of Mom.
My family and I support the Lustgarten Foundation because we know how committed they are to identifying new, innovative ways to detect pancreatic cancer early so patients’ outcomes might be different than they were for Mom. We hope to gather our family together again next year to raise even more funding because we know research is the only way to make true progress in fighting this disease.