Reflections on a Decade of Pancreatic Cancer Survivorship
by William Ramshaw
When I was told I had pancreatic cancer, I began measuring my life in months, not years. Resigned to the realization that I might not be around much longer, I decided there was little left to do but update my will and put my affairs in order.
Looking back, I wish I could say I somehow tracked down some wunderkind specialist with a dazzling record of curing pancreatic cancer, but I can’t say even that. Too sick to travel to one of the well-known cancer centers, I was paired with a local cancer surgeon who had done dozens of Whipple procedures. I later learned people traveled from states away to have him do theirs.
For those who don’t know, the Whipple is a complex surgery in which the head of the pancreas is removed. Developed in 1935, the technique is still used today and is somtimes the only hope for curing pancreatic cancer. However, only one in five people with pancreatic cancer are candidates for this arduous surgery. When most people are diagnosed, their tumor has already spread too far beyond the head of the pancreas, making extracting it impossible.
Although I was one of the lucky ones who got a Whipple, I thought maybe I had a year or two left at best. All the stats said this. I could never have imagined surviving ten years. Yet here I am.
Nonetheless, as much as I want to celebrate, I can’t. Instead, sorrow cuts through me for all those who didn’t even make it to two years, and for the vast majority of pancreatic cancer survivors who won’t see five. Some call this survivor’s guilt.
Perhaps I survived because I have important things yet to do.
The question I ask myself the most – Why was I allowed to survive this disease when most don’t? – is unanswerable. Why has the cosmos, or a Higher Power, allowed me to survive? Other than a few guesses, I have no real answers.
Perhaps I survived because I have important things yet to do. Ten years ago, I avoided saying much about anything and mostly kept to myself. I never imagined I would start writing about surviving a type of cancer with a low survival rate. I love what author and pastor Craig Groeschel once said: “If you’re not dead, you’re not done.” Apparently, I’m not done. And, by the way, neither are you.
Perhaps I’m still alive to be a voice for the voiceless, an activist if you will. Having somehow, someway survived, I feel a weight of responsibility to speak out for those who didn’t make it.
Perhaps I’m still here to offer hope to those who are ready to give up. While being told you have pancreatic cancer is dreadful news, yes, there is far worse news. The words “Stage 4” come to mind. No one really understands the role of hope in surviving cancer, but most agree it is central to survival. In writing about my journey through the valley of pancreatic cancer, I hope perhaps others will read one of my stories and be bolstered to hang on tightly to what hope they have. To believe they can make it despite how hopeless the news may seem.
Perhaps, someday, doctors will look into why I have survived thus far to find ways to improve others’ chances too. Regrettably, the survival rate for pancreatic cancer remains frozen in time. Despite decades of effort, few survivors see two years, and most don’t make it to five. This is unacceptable.
I’ve been gifted years I did nothing to deserve. It is up to me to determine how to live these years. And it is up to you to decide how you will live yours.
William Ramshaw resides in the expansive Pacific Northwest. He is a ten-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. He has written a memoir, Gut Punched! Facing Pancreatic Cancer.