Friday, May 11, 2012

A Deadly Cancer

I met Leslie back in 2001 through a Las Madres Playgroup.  My son Miles and her daughter Maia were the only two July babies.  Leslie was kind of like me, an “older” mom of a baby.  We spent a lot of time together through playgroup activities or small group gatherings at each other’s homes.  Leslie introduced my son Miles to iced water, which he still loves to drink, and Havarti cheese.  We would walk the Almaden Lake trail with other moms pushing strollers. 
We even took a baby swim class together with friends from playgroup.  Leslie was fun to be around and Miles enjoyed playing with Maia.  You always knew where you stood with Leslie.  She wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was.

Leslie began having some strange symptoms like constant itching.  She visited doctors to find out what was going on. She was hospitalized with what they thought was pancreatitis.  I remember Leslie’s mom later telling me that the doctors had told her “it was all in her head”.  Leslie knew something was wrong and kept pushing the doctors to find out what was going on. 

Meanwhile, Leslie and husband Knud were building their dream house up near Sacramento near an airfield.  Knud had a small airplane and the family enjoyed flying.  It was a beautiful home complete with a garage for the airplane. 

Then came the diagnosis.  Leslie had pancreatic cancer.  From what I knew of this cancer, it rarely left survivors.  I remember my stomach feeling upset, knowing my friend may not live through this.  In 2005 Leslie went through some cancer treatments and she and Knud moved from San Jose to their dream home.  Things seemed hopeful.  Our family stopped by for a visit on the way back from Reno that May. 

Leslie seemed thinner and more tired, but was fighting the cancer hard.  Over the next year, many of us saw Leslie periodically when she was in town. 
Our family also visited her early in the summer of 2006 and then again in July for Maia’s 5th birthday party.  Leslie had finished more chemo, was taking a break from it and things looked really good.  She was also planning a big 50th birthday for her husband Knud.  Some of the other ladies and I would check in with her by e-mail and phone after she moved. 

Then came the e-mail that changed everything.  In September, her cancer treatment was canceled because of an abnormal blood test.  Something was going wrong in the liver. 

A few weeks later in early October, I was with my son Miles at a toy store, when Carolyn, our playgroup leader called.  She was letting us know that Leslie did not have much time left.  The cancer had returned with a vengeance.  I know I was crying in the store and my son knew something was wrong.

We organized a group of gals to go up and visit Leslie right away while she could still enjoy company.  While we were there, Maia asked her mother why she was all orange.  Leslie, being Leslie, answered with a smile on her face, “Mommy’s ready for Halloween!”  How she could be so strong for her young daughter amazed me. 

A few other people were able to visit Leslie that October.
In early November of 2006, Knud called to let us know that she was gone.  Leslie was only 47, leaving behind her husband, five-year-old daughter Maia, her mother Ruth, a brother John and sister Jackie.  Many people attended the funeral.  Elaine, our friend from playgroup sang a beautiful solo for Leslie.

A few months later in early 2007, we got notice of a walk up in Napa County for pancreatic cancer through an organization called PanCAN or the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, which Leslie had been involved with before her death.  A bunch of us from the playgroup decided to start “Team Leslie” and walk in memory of our friend.  It was the start of a yearly tradition. 

My dad told me that his mother Elva Cozean had also died from pancreatic cancer in 1968.  I was little at the time and did not remember her.  She was in her 80’s, so I just assumed she died from old age.  I discovered that the survival rate for this type of cancer had not really improved since my grandmother’s death.  This was very disturbing to me.  While progress was being made with the survival rates for other types of cancer, pancreatic cancer was still very deadly.  It is difficult to diagnose the cancer early enough for treatment to work.  Most people diagnosed usually died within months.  Leslie fought for about 2 1/2 years. 

This will be our 5th year walking out of the six years since Leslie died.  Knud and Maia have joined us too, and this year, more of Leslie’s family will be walking. A lot has happened since then our first walk.  The world has lost some famous names to pancreatic cancer: Patrick Swayze, Pavarotti, and Steve Jobs.  Neither fame nor fortune could spare them from this cancer.

PanCAN’s “Walk Through the Vineyard” event has grown steadily each year.  It was even relocated to a larger vineyard in order to accommodate more participants.  This organization has made great gains lobbying for more research money and awareness of this cancer.  They provide support for pancreatic cancer sufferers and their families.  Because of PanCAN, a few more people each year will survive.  We’re going to keep walking and raising money to fight pancreatic cancer.