‘My mum’s cancer shouldn’t have been a death sentence’
"YOU have cancer. There's a 93 per cent chance you won't be alive in five years' time."
They're the words my 59-year-old, full-of-life, otherwise-healthy mother heard in April, 2016, after a tumour was found in her pancreas.
Well, at least they're the words I assume she heard. She actually never told me.
When my Mum told me and my sister she had cancer, that's all she said.
After months of feeling "off" in the tummy, cutting out different foods and trying all different types of gut health remedies to no avail, doctors found a tumour in her pancreas.
It had to be removed, she said through tears, but hopefully that should fix it.
She was lying.
My Mum had been a nurse for more than 30 years and knew exactly what a tumour in her pancreas meant. She knew the cancers that are more bearable to live with and those that weren't, the ones that are more survivable than others. She knew she had very little chance of a full recovery and worst of all, she knew just what this cancer was doing to her body.
But all we knew, that day in April, was that she was going to have an operation.
The operation "went well," but was far more serious than they'd hoped. Not only did they remove her pancreas, but also her stomach, gall bladder and part of her liver, too. Those organs weren't important enough to risk any cancer that may have been left behind.
But just a few weeks went by before doctors discovered not even that was enough. The cancer had in fact spread, and she'd need chemotherapy.
She pushed through, always with a smile on her face. Everyone knows chemotherapy is awful. But we didn't know that from seeing her. She'd come home each day weary and sick but she'd still make us dinner, watch the telly with us and crack jokes. We even went on a family holiday to Italy for two weeks, walking around Rome, dining on pizza and sipping on her all-time favourite Aperol Spritz.
She was still Mum, just a little slower.
But the weariness soon turned to weakness. It was difficult for her to get out of bed, to do her hair, to eat.
My sister and I thought it was the chemo making her so weak, but it was then time for our Dad to tell us there was no more chemo.
Mum had chosen to stop treatments just six weeks after they began, when doctors found the cancer had spread even further.
Just six months after the tumour was discovered, my bright, loving, beautiful mother and best friend lost her battle with cancer.
She'd known she was dying for a few months, but I didn't.
Being 30, I've been lucky enough to grow up in a world where cancer has become more and more survivable. The stories you hear of full recoveries are more common, remission now a more foreseeable reality. The survival rate for breast cancer is now 91 per cent. The same for melanoma and prostate cancer is an incredible 95 per cent.
We all know someone who's had chemo and we all know someone who's survived.
So when I heard Mum had cancer, that's where my mind immediately went. "OK, well this will be s**t," I thought, "but we'll get through."
What I didn't know is that pancreatic cancer isn't one of the cancers you hear about people surviving.
What I learnt by Googling the facts, as I sat by my Mum's bed in palliative care, is that pancreatic cancer's survival rate is just 9 per cent. Nine.
My Mum was given a 91 per cent chance she would die.
I wouldn't have told my daughters either.
What she did in keeping her head up and the facts hidden was protect us. She protected us from that unthinkable feeling she was faced with on hearing those statistics. She gave us the gift of hope, of being able to think that we would still have a Mum to watch us walk down the aisle, to be a grandma to our children, heck, just to wish us happy birthday the next year.
But she was also protecting herself.
She knew the look that would come across the faces of her friends and family on knowing how dire her prognosis was. She knew the sympathy she'd get and that people wouldn't ever be fully themselves around her because all they could see was the cancer.
She didn't want that. She wanted hope.
I am thankful my Mum lived her last six months the way she did as it gave us all hope. We got to hold on to our fun-loving Mum, rather than see her or have to treat her as a sick person.
But while I'm thankful, this shouldn't have had to be the way my Mum treated her cancer.
It's not fair that pancreatic cancer is seen as a death sentence. It's not fair patients have to face those statistics when they're already fighting an incredibly difficult mental and physical battle.
The stigma around pancreatic cancer has to change.
We must show the same strength and hope to sufferers of this cancer as we do to those of breast, melanoma and prostate cancers. I believe the way we do this is to talk about it more.
Let's shake off the taboo of this insidious disease and treat it as it is; a disease that can be fought off.
But as well as changing the stigma, I want to change the statistics. Pancreatic cancer has no method of early detection. This means it can only be diagnosed once a tumour has grown.
This can change. It has to change.
I believe the way it will change is through science and research and that is why I will not stop in my fundraising efforts for the Pancare Foundation. They work tirelessly on not only supporting patients and their families, but in putting time and money into vital research so that one day we will find a way to detect it earlier. We can therefore treat it earlier and more people will survive.
I don't want anyone else to have to hide their pancreatic cancer battle from their loved ones to protect them.
Georgia Love is a Melbourne-based journalist. Pancare's Walk For Hope will take place on Sunday 26 May in Sydney.