Friday, March 28, 2008

Swayze and my mom

My heart ached when I read the news a few weeks ago that actor Patrick Swayze of Dirty Dancing fame had pancreatic cancer.

This was not because I am an ardent fan (although I like that movie), but because pancreatic cancer is the disease that eight years ago killed my mother.

My mother loved Dirty Dancing. She loved to dance and she loved music – what better movie, eh? Once we were shopping together, and she asked me to go wait for her in a chair in the corner while she tried on clothes. “Nobody puts Baby in the corner!” I huffed, giving Swayze’s line. Mom burst out laughing, as did I.

Cancer in any form is not pretty, but pancreatic cancer is a particularly nasty bugger.

Each year about 30,000 Americans are given a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Most of these people will be dead within the year. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in this country.

In Spring 1999, my mother returned from Paris. It was her first trip abroad. She was pale and wan and complaining of stomach problems. She had been in a foreign country. We thought it was the water.

When June came around, my mother attended a small party at my home. She complained of her stomach hurting still. I remember watching her standing by the table, her fist in her gut.

I asked her, of course, if she had been to the doctor. She had. Several times.

A few weeks later, Mom told me she still wasn’t feeling well. I insisted she go back to the doctor. She called me from his office and told me she was being admitted to the hospital that Friday.

She had jaundice.

The following Monday, doctors wheeled my mother off for exploratory surgery. Something was blocking her bile duct. My aunt, who is a nurse, waited with me.

Mom returned to the room, still unconscious. The doctor took us aside. “Pancreatic cancer,” he said.

That was it. No statistics, no hope, no offer of help.

My aunt knew right away that this was a death knell. She explained the diagnosis and statistics.

I was in shock.

My mother’s first words upon awakening were, “Is it cancer?” I burst into tears and fled from the room, leaving my aunt to tell her.

It was the hardest day of my life up to that time.

The choices open were radiation and chemotherapy and little hope. The most radical procedure was a surgery called a Whipple, which entailed removal of the pancreas and surrounding organs, including part of the stomach. My mother chose this operation and opted to have it performed at the University of Virginia.

The surgery prolonged her life. She actually lived just a little beyond a year of the diagnosis. But it was a difficult time, because the surgery left her weak. It also damaged her stomach and she ended up with tube feeding for the rest of her short life.

About this time of year in 2000, I slipped away from work to visit my mother, as I frequently did. Most days I walked in and the house was still as a tomb. She said television bothered her and the music she loved had become noise that she no longer cared to hear. But on this day I walked in to find the radio on. My mother was in the back part of the house. She didn’t know I was there.

“Now I’ve had the time of my life, and I’ve searched through every open door…,” she sang, her alto chiming in on this Dirty Dancing song.

I was grateful she was having a good day. And I was saddened because by this time I knew that the cancer had spread and chemo and radiation wasn’t working. She wasn’t going to be with us much longer.

She died in August at the age of 56. That was the last song I heard her sing.

Give generously when cancer foundations come calling. You just never know where – or who – this disease will strike next.

**This was originally printed on March 26, 2008, in The Fincastle Herald under my column/byline. It didn't have the links.**


  1. Gracious, my heart just ached for you there. I do understand.

    My Dad died, oh, it will be four years ago in June. He was only 63 and it was from a type of brain tumors called a glioblastoma. Nickname, "The Terminator."

    We opted not to do the radical procedures and signed up with Hospice-- -but mostly because his quality of life was already so poor. Prolonging it would only prolong a horrible quality of life.

    Loss in any form is so very hard. But hopefully your Mama had many a few "a time of her life." I'll put a little prayer for Patrick on my list today.

  2. Dew, you know I feel the exact same way. Let's hope Patrick has an easier time than both our moms did.

  3. Thank you both. Ms. E., I do hope Patrick has it easier.

  4. I had tears in my eyes as I read your story. Your mom sounded like a wonderful woman.
    Breast and ovarian cancer has struck in my family and also one of my neighbors (she was only 41 with two little kids). My husband's father died young of a slow growth brain tumor. You're right, you just never know who is next. Thanks for telling your story and for the extra encouragement to give what we can. Let's hope they find a cure in our lifetimes.

  5. Got some tears reading this one. And thinking that your mom was my age and what would my kids do if I was gone. I love thinking about your mom singing I've Had the Time of My Life. I'll probably think about her whenever I hear it now.

  6. This was so touching. My partner's brother in law recently died from pancreatic cancer. They found it while looking for something else and they found it at a very early stage. Perhaps that gave him the year and a half he had vs weeks, but in the end, it couldn't be stopped. Very sad. He was 60. My mom died of breast cancer so giving to the American Cancer Society is something I do regularly. I support stem cell research too...I don't know if cancer's been included in the list of conditions that would benefit, but I figure it's bound to help with everything in some way.

  7. I was very moved by your story. I'm so sorry you lost your Mom at such a young age...such a painful loss. But how wonderful that you got to hear her sing at the last--I know that memory must help sustain you. I have lost so many loved ones to cancer--I pray that a cure comes soon.

  8. that's a very moving story, Countrydew.


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