• Abdominal pain after a double mastectomy leads to metastatic pancreatic cancer diagnosis
• BRCA2 mutation influences treatment
• FOLFIRINOX and other chemotherapies with the energy of others to heal
That news followed two bouts with breast cancer. The first was diagnosed on Sept. 11, 2001, when I had a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. During this time, I underwent genetic testing, and found out I carry the BRCA2 mutation. The cancer returned in the summer of 2015. I had a double mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery.
After the reconstruction I expected that healing was going to be easy. My mind was set for healing and my family support was high. However, I didn’t have a healing experience. I began to complain about abdominal pain, but I was told it was related to the reconstructive surgery. Then I started to lose weight and felt deep pains under my breast. I finally went to the Norwalk Hospital emergency room in great pain.
A New Cancer Diagnosis
I was fortunate to be seen by a gastroenterologist. He saw that I was jaundiced and that I needed a stent put into my bile duct immediately to halt the buildup of bile in my liver which allowed my jaundice to develop from the increased bilirubin in my blood stream. The next step was to find out what caused the bile duct to get blocked. After a CT scan and other scans, I was told “You have a 4.4 cm tumor wrapped around your pancreas. 4.4 cm is big, and it’s lethally big. It’s wrapped itself around the veins and arteries at the top of the pancreas, rendering it inoperable.”
On Dec. 24th, I met with Dr. Joseph Ruggiero of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. He said I was a candidate for FOLFIRINOX, a chemotherapy combination often chosen for people with the BRCA2 mutation. After considering other options I decided to go with the FOLFIRINOX.
The chemotherapy was disorienting, and at times I found it difficult to think logically, but I maintained a healthy attitude and a will to live. I am an executive coach and I started chemotherapy a week before I launched a global program for 1,000 people from 75 countries. I decided to be transparent with the coaches, and let them know what I was going through. I am so glad I did. What happened next was life changing for me—literally. The coaches decided to start sending prayers to me and to pray every morning at 9 AM in whatever country they were in. My daughter and husband sent out updates to friends and family and many sent back notes with prayers for healing.
I would share stories about my treatment and its impact—I was having conversations with so many people about what I was going through. I began to feel alive and connected. Being able to be transparent and open about my cancer journey was liberating and—in spite of what I was going through —I was feeling loved and cared for by so many people: my friends, family and all of the coaches who were sending healthy energy my way. I found that the act of sharing was therapeutic. Being engaged with people who were wishing me to heal gave me great encouragement. The chemo robbed me of my body weight—at one point I weighed less than 110 lbs. and I am 5’ 7” tall. I looked terrible, almost skeletal. But the prayers and wishes of those around me bolstered me spiritually, giving me the healing energy my body learned to thrive on.
After five months, the tumor in my pancreas was reduced to less than 1 cm, though small nodules in my lungs persisted. My husband Richard was my rock and salvation during all of this. He was at my side—helping me figure out what I needed more of—from special food to how to handle the challenges of growing a huge business. We got invited to travel to Australia and Ireland, and other countries. With Rich’s help we made those trips. Being able to sustain contact with people rather than staying in bed was such a powerful experience for me. I didn’t feel sick any more—I was feeling healthy. Through chemotherapy and finally allowing people to help me instead of me always helping others, I am now thriving and traveling all over the world.
When you first discover that you have cancer, it’s scary, it’s confusing, and it’s not so easy to digest. And if you are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer you need to act quickly to better your chances for recovery. I wanted to find a way to thrive in the face of cancer. Enabling people to help me and share what I was going through was such a powerful lesson. My family created a circle of health around me. Between my children who were with me all the time—they coached me through months of not wanting to eat by sitting at my side and saying, “take another bite” when I thought I was unable to. Rich’s brother is a doctor, and he and Suzanne, one of my best friends, came over every week to ensure I was doing what I was told to do.
I was told I was a walking miracle, and I was also a ‘walking experiment,’ and this is a very different label than ‘sick and in stage IV cancer.’ How we think about ourselves and how we label ourselves makes a difference in the healing process. I found this healing process to be the most fascinating journey of my life. I am always looking forward to the next chapter in my journey.
Judith passed away after a three-year battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Her indomitable spirit and will to live was shared with everyone she encountered. We offer our deepest sympathy to her family.