In February 2015, Graham was told that he might have as little as three months to live. After getting a second opinion and undergoing surgery to remove the head of his pancreas, Graham spent four weeks recovering and was back working, initially part time and then full time and trying to live an active, healthy lifestyle. He feels he is one of the lucky ones.
“Some people tell me that my cancer story is remarkable. My own thoughts are a bit different. As a lawyer, I see myself as a problem solver. Using simple calm logic, I try to approach a problem and methodically work through it. After I was first told I had lesions on the head of my pancreas and it was likely these were secondary tumours, (I had already worked through 4 brain tumours and a nasty post-operative infection), I sought out an expert and he told me I might have as little as three months to live. That was in February of 2015.
I felt gutted, which is bad post-Whipple pun, and sought out a second opinion. After a referral to another expert I was told, yes you have lesions that are likely to be secondary tumours, but we ‘might’ be able to do something about them. I had another scan and the ‘might’ became a yes. Other experts also said I could try this or that, and I ended up ringing my old but brilliant brain surgeon who settled the matter saying, ‘if I had the same type of tumour that grew in my brain, now in my pancreas, get it out’!
Whipple surgery, to remove the head of a pancreas, is one of the most invasive and painful procedures. I was lucky that my surgeon does them at least once a fortnight. A specialist nurse once said, ‘find someone who does at least 20 a year, it’s a difficult and technical surgery, you don’t want someone to make a mess of it.’ So, I met with my surgeon and locked in a date. He told me to stay positive, smile … we can do this. In my mind I went through every possible scenario considering whether surgery was worth it or not. I decided I could trust this surgeon. The surgery took place on 20 April 2015.
When I woke up, I had a lot of tubes and things poking out of me. I didn’t really know what happened, til I started to feel where I was. Pain is a part of Whipple surgery. There is no hiding from it and despite some amazing care by specialist nurses, I don’t think I had ever imagined how sore I was. Note that I had already had brain surgery 5 times. With respect to all those who have gone through neurosurgery, the tissue around the skull has very few pain receptors and I was normally up and about the following day. Family and friends had told me a Whipple was going to be harder, and it was.
With a lot of assistance, I was able to slide/get out of bed the day I woke up and hobble with a frame and various IV pumps around the post-surgery ward. A few days later I was in a normal ward. And then slowly, but regularly I was able to move about. A week later I was discharged. What got me out of bed was seeing other people like me, making slow and steady efforts to move forward. If they could do it, so could I. After a couple of days at home I tried vacuuming, then more walking and after a few weeks I even got back onto my bike and cycled a few blocks. Four weeks later I returned to work.
So how does anyone get through a history of brain surgery and then pancreatic surgery? Yes, there is a quiet determination, but really for me. It’s a fierce desire to shake life for all its worth and to keep feeling the sun, wind and rain. To continue to be there for my kids, my partner and all those wonderful people who have given me their support. Most of all it’s to recognise that I don’t have to compare myself with anyone else, prove myself to anyone, simply get on with things, one step at a time. So if I can encourage anyone going through pancreatic cancer or caring for someone getting over a Whipple, you are not alone, work out things that work well for you, link up with other people who have gone through similar tough times. Not everyone pulls through cancer, whether its pancreatic, brain or anything else.
After my first brain tumour, a clostridium infection appeared where the tumour was removed. I got sicker and weaker, till I got to a place where I was in and out of consciousness. I dreamt of dying and it became apparent to those treating me, if they did not surgically remove the infection I might have died. Luckily for me I made it and for the first time in weeks woke up feeling refreshed and alive. And I know that I am going to be getting follow up scans for a long time to come. I also know that my cancer is aggressive, but I am not going to spend the rest of my life looking back over my shoulder wondering what if… But, for now its one step at a time, a scan every 6 months and celebrating every day for what it brings.
Regardless of what the future holds I want to give things my best.
A few other things: try and stay fit. Regardless of your physique, doing something that causes some exertion helps. I cycle a bit and it makes a huge difference. I also meditate. I have been doing this for years and it’s a great way to clear my head, relax before surgery and also move forward.
Graham attends Pancare’s patient support groups, which are held bi-monthly. It’s here he and others can swap ideas on recovery methods, make friends and learn about life during and after pancreatic cancer.