Today would have been my father’s seventy fourth birthday. He died over three years ago of pancreatic cancer. Coincidentally, November is pancreatic cancer awareness month.
Having lived through my father’s diagnosis, treatment and death, I am well aware of the havoc this cancer wreaks on a person and his family and friends. It is insidious, unrepentant and unforgiving.
Unlike some people who received the same diagnosis, my father lived with pancreatic cancer for four and a half years. That was considered a relatively long time to live for a cancer that acts swiftly and without mercy.
Following his diagnosis, the doctors also acted swiftly to remove the cancer as best they could, however all the effects of the disease were apparent–my father lost an obscene amount of weight and he was already thin to begin with. He lost his appetite from chemotherapy drugs, which was heart wrenching because my father was a foodie long before the word foodie became popular.
He took lots of naps because his body was fighting an internal battle that was never ending but always tiring.
Despite all of this, his fight took place in the background, while life carried on in the foreground. My mother likes to use the phrase “he had a zest for life” to describe my dad. And it’s true.
He continued with his law practice never playing the cancer card to shirk his responsibilities. He accelerated his travel plans and got to as many places on his bucket list with my mother as he could. He would still leisurely read the weekend paper, go to concerts and shows and try new restaurants. He event went on a ski trip with us six months before he died. But mostly he indulged in spending precious time with his grandchildren, children, friends and his wife.
Even his perennial visits to the hospital were a good enough reason to take my mom out for breakfast at a nearby cafe.
The ordinary became extraordinary for my father; he cherished the interstitial moments with my children–driving them to and from hockey practice, babysitting on a Saturday night, stopping by on the way home from the office during bathtime to say goodnight. This was the stuff memories are made of, not only for my father, but also for me and for my children. Those moments created memories that would come to be more valuable than any toy or gift that was given to mark a birthday or holiday. And they continue to increase in value as time goes by because they are bound by the time that my father was alive to create them.
My kids and I talk about my father almost daily. We might be eating a piece of chocolate and one of my sons will say “Pete taught me how to eat chocolate. You don’t eat it quickly. You have to savour it.”
My youngest was four years old when his grandfather died, but he knows that he was a rabid soccer fan. He plays soccer now and knows that if his grandfather were here, he would be so proud to see him score a goal. Many of the jerseys he wears were either hand-me-downs from his brothers or given to him as a baby and that many of them came from his grandfather.
Technology has enabled us to watch videos and scroll through the pictures of my dad during healthier times. Hearing his voice and seeing him in motion is both painful and joyful.
His happiness seemed unfaltering. His resilience, unwavering. I envy him. I’m not sure I would have had the fortitude to carry on as he did knowing I was living with a death sentence.
Pancreatic cancer doesn’t get the kind of profile it’s more popular cousins do, like breast cancer and lung cancer. That’s because it has a 93% mortality rate. Nobody lives long enough to get involved in fundraising and awareness. Most patients are lucky to live for five years from the time they are diagnosed. There is no true cure for pancreatic cancer; surgery followed by chemotherapy is the only option right now. Unfortunately by the time it is diagnosed the cancer is usually at an advanced stage and that’s because it is so hard to detect.
That is why famed game show host and Canadian celebrity, Alex Trebek’s diagnosis has been both a curse for him and a boon to the fundraising community. The publicity he has given regarding his pancreatic cancer diagnosis has raised awareness exponentially and thus, raised money for much needed research on early detection and treatment.
We will do our part in our little corner of the world to raise awareness too. The purple ribbon is worn as a symbol of pancreatic cancer awareness. My three boys have purple ribbon stickers on their hockey helmets and purple hockey tape on their sticks. We are participating in a fundraiser with my oldest son’s team because, sadly, one of his teammates’ mothers died from pancreatic cancer this past summer.
I am trying hard not to focus on what life would have been like had my dad not gotten this crappy diagnosis. What he would have thought of seeing his grandsons grow up into young men, what trips he would have taken, what advice he would have given me when I find myself in a tough situation, the kisses and cuddles he would have had with my seven year old, but then I would just be torturing myself and I know that’s not productive. So I focus on the memories. Those valuable gems that will continue to increase in value with each passing November. We will celebrate my father’s birthday tonight with a bottle of good red wine, a beautiful steak and a really good piece of chocolate that we will savour, just like he would have.
If you want to make a donation to Pancreatic Cancer Canada, here’s how: https://pancreaticcancercanada.ca/ways-to-give/