This year, on the day of the Boston Marathon, I went in for chemotherapy. On that day, I was wearing my own Boston marathon shirt in solidarity with the people who were running the race the year after the bombing at the finish line. My shirt happened to spark a conversation with another gentleman who was in for chemotherapy also. I had really not talked with any other patients up to this point, but as fate would have it, I met R on this day. Our conversation turned from the marathon to our cancers. I asked what kind of cancer he had and he said, “pancreatic”. I couldn’t believe it. I had never met anyone with pancreatic cancer to this point before. I told him, “me, too!” This was the beginning of a brief friendship, but a friendship based upon the understanding that we were united by the same diagnosis. Our lives were very different. We were very different people, and yet just by virtue of having been diagnosed with the same form of cancer, we understood certain things about each other. Because there is no support group locally for pancreatic cancer, we became our own support group of two.
We talked that day and exchanged emails and phone numbers. I knew from the start that R was very sick. His cancer had spread already. He was not eligible for potentially curative surgery. I represented best possible case scenario for a patient with pancreatic adenocarcinoma. I also knew that his illness would eventually kill him. We did not say that directly to each other, but we both knew what our diagnoses meant.
We exchanged email messages, and spoke on the phone several times. We sat together a couple of times at treatment so we could talk. His chemotherapy combination was much more toxic than mine. He had very significant issues with side effects. He was in a wheelchair. I continued to run and live my life. I wanted to talk to him and listen to him and to connect with him. He was the only other PC patient I had had the privilege of meeting up to that point. While there was so much that was different about our cases, I felt comfort in talking with R, and in knowing that we both had an understanding of what it feels like to be told you have pancreatic cancer.
I know very little about R’s life prior to his diagnosis. I do know that we had many conversations about how getting diagnosed made us love and appreciate everything about our lives so much more. Every moment seemed sweeter. Every day we got to live was a good day. Every experience meant something to us. Time and again, while going through chemotherapy, I have been reminded how people who have been diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness seem grateful for whatever time they have. R, despite the devastating diagnosis and side effects he was experiencing, never once said he was angry or that his circumstances were not fair. He and I only talked about how much we loved our lives.
We spoke not too long ago and I knew it was only a matter or time. I learned yesterday that R passed away. It felt like a punch to the gut, even though I knew it would happen. While his tumors had initially responded to chemotherapy, the regimen had been so tough on his body, he was unable to continue treatments. He took a couple of breaks while I knew him, and I knew this last time he would not be restarting treatment. I had hoped and prayed for a miracle, but I knew he was suffering. I am so sorry there was no miracle to be had for R.
I am so glad I got to meet R and have our brief but meaningful friendship. There have been many days where I felt miserable, but I went out for a walk or a run and thought of him, prayed for him and dedicated my run to him because I knew his journey was much harder than my own. His love of life, and our conversations have stayed with me as a reminder to always love my own.
I am experiencing survivor’s guilt. Why was my cancer found early? Why am I one of the very few “lucky” ones? Why do I get a chance at living a long life when most people with pancreatic cancer do not? I am no more worthy than anyone else who got my diagnosis. With a five year survival rate of 6% for all stages, there are few of us left standing. Why me and not the others? There is no reason, of course, other than luck. I only hope that I can use whatever time I have left to make a difference in some small way. There has to be a reason going forward why I am still here and so many others are not. I will never forget R. He and the countless other PC patients who have not been so fortunate as I have will be a constant reminder to me that I am here for a reason and my time must serve a purpose.
I am scheduled to run 50 miles in two weeks. Every mile of that race will be dedicated to another cancer patient. I am making my list of dedications this weekend. Their struggles are my struggles and I will draw my strength from our shared journey in life.