Before her diagnosis, the only thing Brenda Blackmore really knew about pancreatic cancer was that it had claimed the life of Dirty Dancing’s Patrick Swayze.
“I wasn’t aware of pancreatic cancer, aside from hearing about the celebrities who had died from it,” Brenda said.
At age 69, pancreatic cancer was last thing on the McMahons Point local’s mind – she and her husband Barry were busy filling their days entertaining friends, travelling, playing golf and spending time with their three adult sons and seven grandchildren.
Brenda’s chance diagnosis
Pancreatic cancer is often called the silent killer, and with good reason – most patients don’t experience symptoms until the cancer is big enough to impact the surrounding organs. Even then, the symptoms are often vague.
It was exactly that vague kind of symptom – discomfort under her left ribcage – that prompted Brenda to visit her family doctor in November 2010.
“I was about to drive down the coast, so I thought I might as well get it checked out before I left, and my doctor just happened to be working on the Saturday morning,” Brenda explained.
“By the time I got there I was no longer in discomfort, but he sent me for an ultrasound anyway.”
Brenda credits her longstanding relationship with her GP with receiving an earlier diagnosis.
“I think if it was anyone else, they would have just sent me away,” she said.
“The ultrasound showed something. I later went for an endoscopy and that showed that I had pancreatic cancer.
“I was in utter disbelief, shock, and I think I almost went out of my body. I thought he was just going to tell me I was too fat!
“When I went to see the specialist, it was in the middle of November. I asked if I was going to live till Christmas, and he said he couldn’t tell. He kept hanging his head and saying he can’t say.”
Brenda’s GP looked back at her records, and estimated that, judging by her symptoms, she had pancreatic cancer two years before being diagnosed.
Those symptoms included episodes that Brenda likened to a “diabetic attack”, where she would shake and need to eat.
Surgery and treatment
On 1 December 2010, Brenda underwent Whipple surgery.
Also known as pancreaticoduodenectomy, Whipple surgery treats tumours in the head of the pancreas and is the most common surgery for pancreatic cancer.
Although she had indeed made it to Christmas, recovering from the major procedure meant Brenda was feeling far from celebratory.
“It was hard, and I have consequences from the surgery,” she said.
Following the procedure, she underwent five rounds of chemotherapy in 2011.
Brenda credits her family and a Cancer Council support group with keeping her positive during the ups and downs of treatment.
If you’d like to find your nearest Cancer Council support group, please call us on 13 11 20.
Finding support and then giving back
“Before I had the Whipple surgery, I felt I desperately needed to talk to someone who had been through it,” Brenda said.
Brenda joined a local Cancer Council NSW pancreatic cancer support group that met once a month in Roseville.
“I found very helpful. To know there were other people who were still alive was a big thing. We would discuss diet and symptoms. Everyone was so genuinely concerned, gentle, calm, supportive and wonderful,” Brenda said.
“The whole thing was just warm, embracing, even though you’re talking about all your rotten symptoms.”
Brenda is now helping others who are facing a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and surgery as a Cancer Connect Peer Support volunteer.
“I love talking to people and being able to answer their questions or just listen to them,” she said.
Life after cancer
Now 78 years old, Brenda has a yearly blood test to check for cancer markers.
Like many people who undergo a Whipple procedure, Brenda has needed to adjust her diet.
“I suffer from stomach problems, but I’m managing it. I manage to work around it all, and I’m pretty careful with what I eat,” she said.
“But I just get on with what’s happening, like picking the grandchildren from school.”
She still travels, with Fiji a favourite destination, and enjoys the odd game of golf.
Her advice to other people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is to find support and take inspiration from your loved ones.
“Against all the adversities with my health, I feel very fortunate to be active and totally engaged with life,” Brenda said.
Thank you Brenda for sharing your story with us.
If you would like to learn more about pancreatic cancer and how to get support, visit our website or phone Cancer Council Information and Support on 13 11 20.