Sindy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer over five years ago. Her husband, Jon, is a physician.
I had an ultrasound, thinking I had gallstones. Instead, the radiologist said I had a tumour on my pancreas. I didn’t know what the pancreas did or how serious it was. I just thought, “Oh well, we’ll just get rid of the pancreas.” I looked at Jon and he had a really weird look on his face. Then the radiologist said, “It’s cancer.”
When they left the room I said to Jon, “Is this a good one or a bad one?” He said, “It’s a bad one. A really bad one.” We both started crying. We were just in shock. When he started to tell me the stats I was like, “Holy crap! There is a huge chance that I might not make it to six months!”
I had to have some hope. I started looking on the Internet to find survivors. And there were none! The Pancreatic Cancer Canada website had a section called “survivor stories.” They were all written by family members saying, “We remember so-and-so who was only here for a year after his diagnosis.” So I just tried to block it out.
Jon and I were already registered for Ironman Canada. A lot of people asked me why I would even try to do an Ironman while I was going through chemotherapy. I think it was a diversion.
The race was between my 15th and 16th rounds of chemo (of 18). I knew I would be able to do the swim, and I thought I’d see how the bike ride would go. The initial loop went up one way and came back through the village of Whistler. There were people cheering for me that didn’t even know me. That was really fun. On the second part you go down into the Pemberton Valley, then it’s flat, and finally you come up a bunch of hills. I said, “Let’s at least do the downhills.” The 20 km of downhill were super fun. We got into the Pemberton Valley and—the coolest thing—we look over to the right and there’s about 25 people standing at the road with this massive sign that says, “Go Sindy!” I said, “I am the one on your sign!” So I am talking to them and they are giving me hugs and Jon is saying, “We have to get going.” We had about 30 km to get back up, and oh my God, it was so hard! We would get halfway up a hill and Jon would make me stop and have something to eat.
The marathon was two loops. I said, “Let’s go out on the first loop and see what happens.” I just felt amazing. I had all this energy that I never had in the last five months going through chemo. It was the weirdest thing. We did the first loop so fast that we were able to entirely walk the second loop. A ton of people ran beside us and asked questions. It was really amazing. We finished in 16½ hours, and we had 17 hours to do it.
Breast cancer and prostate cancer have five-, 10-, 15-, 20- and 25-year stats. Pancreatic cancer? There are five-year stats and then there is nothing.
A few things came out of the Ironman that I wasn’t expecting. First, I had opened a fundraising page on Pancreatic Cancer Canada’s website and we raised $50,000. It also gave me an idea of how media attention can help inspire people to do things that they don’t really think are possible. By getting my story out there I can provide some hope to people who are newly diagnosed. Hope that I never had.
People contact me quite often. They are curious about a lot of things. How big was my tumour? Did I have chemotherapy? Why did I have radiation? A lot of people ask about being active. How much exercise do I do? Do I think that’s what’s kept me a survivor?
But part of it is hard. Last spring a woman contacted me who was only 34. Kids two and four years old. She wasn’t able to have curative surgery, but they were hopeful that with chemotherapy they would be able to shrink the tumour and then do surgery. I just found out that she has died. That’s really hard because it’s a constant reminder that this thing could come back at any time.
I went on the Canadian Cancer Society website and looked at the statistics for the different cancers. Breast cancer and prostate cancer, they have five-year stats,10-year stats,15-, 20-, and 25-year stats.
Pancreatic cancer? There are five-year stats and then there is nothing. I was like, “What the heck?” Surely if eight percent of people make it to five years, seven percent have to make it to 10. I know two people who have survived past five years and actually met a guy who is at 21 years.
I go for CT scans every six months. Every one of them is nerve-racking. I can sort of block it out for three or four months, but as I get within a couple of weeks of the CT scan, it’s just horrible.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month, so I always look for the latest and greatest detection methods and treatments. There must be some advances! There’s nothing. It’s like pancreatic cancer survival hasn’t changed in 40 years. Some others—breast, prostate—they get all the attention and all the research money, and their survival rates just go up and up. Nobody is lobbying for pancreatic cancer because there are no survivors. You can tell I get a little hot about this. Every October it’s breast cancer awareness month. You see pink everywhere. The NFL wears pink. November, who gets all the attention? Movember. Prostate cancer. Because there’s lots of prostate survivors, right? All the money keeps going to breast cancer and prostate cancer, and their five-year survival rate is over 90 percent. I know a lot of people are getting diagnosed with those cancers and that’s not good, but many are living for 20 to 25 years.
Right now the top four killers from cancer are lung, colorectal, breast and pancreatic. And they are saying that within the next couple of years, pancreatic cancer is going to pass breast cancer. So there are way fewer people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but soon more people will die from it than from breast cancer.
I can’t really attribute my survival to anything other than biology. A lot of people say, “Oh, it’s because you are so active.” But here is another sad story. When I was diagnosed, a couple of friends sent me a link to a woman’s story. She was 35, two young kids. She had surgery and chemotherapy just like me. After treatment she got back into running pretty quickly and a year and a bit after being diagnosed she did a really hard Ironman and clocked a great time. She was an amazing athlete. I heard that she was planning on doing Escape from Alcatraz, which is another tough triathlon. The day of the race I went to follow her and she was not racing. I was like, “That’s weird. How come she isn’t racing?” She died three months later.
I was just over a year at the time, and she died at just under two years. That was devastating because I was getting to the point where I thought, “Maybe I am going to be okay. Maybe I am going to be a long term survivor.” She was my hope. So I kind of lost all hope again. I had heard through various physicians that a lot of people die around the two-year mark. So around my two-year anniversary I was really scared.
I go for CT scans every six months. Every one of them is nerve-racking. It’s funny how I can sort of block it out for three or four months, but as I get within a couple of weeks of the CT scan, it’s just horrible. A lot of people die around five years too, so the four months before I was, “Oh man, I know it’s going to be bad.” And then the CT came back clear! I was, “Are you sure? Are you reading it right?” It just seemed impossible, you know?