When I read that Steve Jobs was taking a "medical leave of absence" from Apple, I got the same dull throbbing pain in my head the day I saw a supermarket tabloid picture of a skeletal Patrick Swayze right before he died.
There's something about pancreatic cancer that rips your soul right out of you. It takes these tall, handsome men and turns them into scarecrows, all sharp angles and tight flesh. It literally eats them from the inside out.
It also eats their loved ones the same way. It's been almost five years since I lived this, when my husband died from the ravages of pancreatic cancer, and few hospital 'errors'.
Jobs is 'luckier' than most, strange as that is to say. He has a very rare form of pancreatic cancer, islet cell, which is slow growing. Pancreatic cancer usually operates more like a brush fire, as it did on Swayze. He had the much more common adenocarcinonoma, the same type my husband had. Inside of a year, Swayze was a stick figure. In that supermarket rag picture, his jeans flapped in the breeze over his emaciated body. He was holding a bag of popcorn, mostly full, since people with pancreatic cancer can't eat, and if they eat at all, the food delivers no sustenance to them.
You never know what pure hell is, trying to get someone with pancreatic cancer to eat. You fight for every ounce you can put on their body. My husband was 'luckier' than most PC victims. His tumor was operable. With pancreatic cancer, using the word 'luck' seems like the cruelest lie. He was able to get the tumor excised with the Whipple procedure, which basically reroutes your entire digestive system and causes a ton of other problems.
From the moment when the food went into his body to the second it left, it was nothing but a horror. Watching every mouthful. Trying to tempt him any way I could to take "one more bite." Devising ways to sneak a few more calories, any calories at all, into anything he took into his mouth.
Watching a 6 ft. 4 in. man shrink to 130 lbs. seems to have shocked his visitors. Had he changed physically? I wouldn't know. All I saw was the same guy I fell in love with. All I cared about was trying to get him to eat....food, food, food, the constant battle!...and trying to do anything and everything to control his pain. I even considered trying to get some marijuana for him, which wasn't going to be easy since the last time I had had a joint in my hand had been in college, and it wasn't even mine.
What amazes me is how Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze and my husband all began to look alike. They have that same stricken, sunken, parchment-skinned look. Tall and skeleton-like and fragile. They all have something else in common: they never complained, and I know from an occasional wince on my husband's face that this had to be the worst pain imaginable.
Pancreatic cancer is virulent. Part of the reason isn't just that there isn't a cure; because of the position of the pancreas in the gut, there isn't even a way to detect it early until it's spread. A few lucky ones have a tumor found inadvertently. Most victims don't. They complain about pain, they're losing weight, and by then, it's too late. The thing about pancreatic cancer, though, is no matter how early it's found, it's almost always too late.
My husband had turned jaundiced on the 4th of July. We thought it might be his gall bladder. We were wrong.
About forty thousand people a year are diagnosed in the US with pancreatic cancer; about the 35,000 die. It's the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the country. No one is positive about what causes it. There has been virtually no means of controlling it, none at curing it, and no means of detecting it early. Government funding for this cancer has also been cut.
In July it will be five years since my husband died, and we're no closer to even finding a way to test people for this disease, much less getting a cure.
How many more rich and famous people have to get this disease and die a painful and public death from it before it becomes a priority? And how many more unsung victims have to get that diagnosis before there's a test to find it early, much less any hope of a cure?