In our last installment in this space, we discussed how it can be difficult to provide final disposition at Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory (Lewisville, Texas) for acquaintances of ours. We specifically mentioned a recent cremation of a friend who succumbed to prostate cancer.
Even though deathcare is our profession, it’s not possible to divorce personal feelings from the process.
In our last blog, we discussed prostate cancer in some detail in the hope that more awareness of this killer would be beneficial. This time around, we turn to the topic of pancreatic cancer.
It is one of the most lethal diseases known to medical science; the diagnosis is almost always, quite frankly, a fatal sentence, usually a rapid one.
The facts about this disease are disturbing: 91% of those diagnosed pass away within five years; 74 % die within the first year; these figures represent the worst mortality rates among any cancers — equally as disturbing, they have remained fairly consistent for the last 40 years.
While other cancers have been battled (better treatments, increased life expectancy, bright research hopes for the future), pancreatic cancer has stubbornly resisted advances.
It remains as deadly as ever.
The two cases which we cremated illustrate the paths that this horrible condition can follow.
The first was a close business associate whose first symptoms were back pains — he and his family had just returned from visiting a relative when the pains began. Because he had slept on an uncomfortable bed during the brief visit, our friend mistakenly believed that he had aggravated a back problem. He said his “lumbago was acting up.”
The other telltale sign, which occurred in unison, was weight loss — but since he had been dieting, the loss seemed to be a product of his own efforts to drop a few pounds.
The pain continued for over week when he finally consulted a physician. Shortly thereafter, the stunning pancreatic cancer diagnosis was made.
Most unfortunately, the disease took its toll all too quickly. The prognosis of some months to live was false hope, death came in less than half the time.
We had to admire the clear-eyed reaction he had to the diagnosis: there was no denial present. In fact, he continued to work up until the end — this included getting his affairs in order, preparing and paying for final disposition virtually within days of receiving the grim news.
His only unfinished business was a delayed trip which finally was never taken.
Near the end, he told us that with this disease, nothing should be postponed at all.
The other case we are quite familiar with took a different route.
Upon consulting a physician for some gastric symptoms, the cancer diagnosis was delivered.
At 72 years of age, he was an active, involved person and his reaction to the diagnosis was reflective of that spirit. He fought aggressively — completely changed his diet, eliminating sugar, meat and all processed flour. Additionally, he was admitted into an experimental program at a well-respected health care facility.
There was no expectation of a quick death, instead he believed that he could “beat it.”
He survived two years, mostly in fairly decent health considering the adverse circumstances.
Shortly before his death, he received a community award from a local organization which has an annual dinner: the very last words he spoke from the podium were, “I will see you next year.”
That was not to be.
Because of the two year window, he had the opportunity to properly prepare for his demise — gifts were given, funeral arrangements set, goodbyes were said.
These are both very sad stories, especially given the overarching theme that this disease is unyielding.
Risk factors that can be controlled include no use of tobacco and maintaining a reasonable weight. Age (pancreatic cancer generally strikes after 45), gender (slightly more men than women develop it, but that gap is narrowing) and genetic influences all seem to play a role here, but those cannot be controlled.
The future hope is for more fruitful research — but that future is not guaranteed, at least not in the short term.