[NOTE: On Tuesday, my former husband Alex Bennett and I, recorded a new episode of The Alex and Ronni Show. It is posted at the bottom of this story.
As I begin writing this on Thursday morning, everything is fine. It's a normal summer morning - the sun is shining (it will be a scorcher this afternoon), I've had breakfast, am working on another cup of coffee and looking forward to lunch with a friend.
Nothing remarkable is going on.
And that is the point.
There have been a lot of new subscribers to TGB in the past couple of weeks so here is a short recap to bring you up to date:
In June 2017, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, endured a 12-hour Whipple surgery from which it took most of a year to recover including three months of chemotherapy.
An internal bleed developed leading, over months, to many blood transfusions and, eventually, two (much less invasive) surgeries in April that were successful. There has been no bleeding since then but thanks to the chemo and the blood loss, I became severely anemic.
That led to five, weekly, liquid iron infusions that ended three weeks ago.
Okay. That is the bare bones history. It is the hardest thing I have ever been through in my 77 years, and although I went for the treatment, deep down I believed I would be dead by now.
Personal health reporter Jane Brody pointed out in The New York Times earlier this week that pancreatic cancer is rare, accounting for just three percent of all cancers, but is one of the deadliest:
”Although 55,440 cases, affecting 29,200 men and 26,240 women,” writes Brody, “are expected to be diagnosed this year in the United States, 44,330 people will die of it, often within months of diagnosis, making it the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in this country (after lung, colorectal and breast cancer).”
I ran those numbers. They mean that only 20 percent will survive beyond a few months.
Back in mid-January, after the chemotherapy ended, my Whipple surgeon told me that blood tests had revealed “no current evidence of cancer.” (They are always so meticulously careful with their wording, these cancer doctors.) “Go,” he said waving me toward the door, “and enjoy your life.”
God knows I tried but I didn't feel much like celebrating. Certainly I was relieved but it was tempered with the knowledge that blood tests are not conclusive.
Three weeks later, after reviewing other tests including a CT scan which is more definitive, my oncologist said to me, “There is no sign of the cancer at this time.” (They are always so meticulously careful with their wording, these cancer doctors.)
But I still wasn't ready to throw a party. Smiles on the faces of friends when I told them the scan results were hugely encouraging prompting my own smiles in return. But facts interfered with the joy I believed I should be feeling.
Undoubtedly that reticence was due at least in part to the fact that I knew – and know - pancreatic cancer is resistant to most therapies and it often recurs following surgery either in the pancreas again or another body part.
And even if I had been dancing in the street, there was still the anemia plaguing me which, weeks later, led to the iron infusions.
Thursday morning (today, as I write this), I woke to an email message linking to my online medical records where there were results of blood tests taken on Wednesday. There was also a note from my primary care physician:
”Your lab work looks great!” he wrote. “No signs of anemia and looks like your iron stores are all tanked up.”
And then, THEN – even though the anemia was due to blood loss and chemotherapy, not cancer – I finally felt free to celebrate. I thought my heart might burst as tears of joy spilled into my coffee.
It seems nuts to me that overcoming anemia makes more difference to my sense of good health than cancer-free test results earlier this year. I felt the gradual return to more normal energy levels during the five weeks of iron infusions but there had been poor test results for so long I don't think I trusted my own senses.
I haven't forgotten the high incidence of recurring cancer I face but now I can set that aside. That's what I have wanted more than anything – to feel like I did before all this happened.
And now I do. Yes, some bits and pieces are missing. I'm short a gall bladder, a duodenum, part of my stomach and half my pancreas. There are three or four pills I need to take several times a day for the rest of my life to make up for those losses.
But that is nothing compared to this marvelous feeling of well-being and most of all, ordinariness I have now.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – “Notorious RBG” – has been a hero of mine for a long time. What I did not know until sometime after my initial diagnosis is, as Jane Brody explains in The Times, Ginsburg
”...had part of her pancreas removed after a routine CT scan revealed a one-centimeter lesion. While that lesion was benign, a smaller tumor the surgeon found was malignant and had not yet spread beyond the pancreas.”
That happened in 2009, when she was – as I was last year – age 76. Justice Ginsburg gives this old woman hope she too can make it at least another nine years cancer-free and even resurrect her pre-cancer goal to live as long as her great aunt Edith, 89.
But it doesn't matter if I don't. The universe gave me this extra time that 80 percent of pancreatic cancer patients don't get. Most of all, right now, I want to wallow in the joy of my return to ordinary health.
Here is latest episode of The Alex and Ronni Show.