No right or wrong reaction to cancer: Katie’s story

Four years ago, Katie felt pain between her ribs and upper back.

She was initially told it could be indigestion or pancreatitis. But Katie persisted – she knew it was more significant.

“I took myself to hospital, and the person on the ward that night said, ‘This is serious. You’ve got something on there… We’re going to have to take it out’,” she recounts.

In just ten days, Katie found herself undergoing a Whipple procedure, a major surgery removing parts of the pancreas and other organs. The surgeon was the same person she had seen that fateful night.

“It was almost three months until I recovered from that,” says Katie. “And it was during that time – the surgeon took samples in the pancreas and confirmed I had Stage Three pancreatic cancer.”

It’s okay to not be okay

When her oncologist suggested going on “next-level chemotherapy” and warned her about side effects, Katie was surprised.

“I had known people that went through chemo and they still went to work. But I was in bed for, really, six months,” she says.

Katie is standing, admiring a collage of photographs taken by her husband.
Katie, at home.

“It was a two-week cycle. The first five days was just awful – vomiting, diarrhoea, trying to keep weight on. And then the next five days, I was able to get up and do some washing, that sort of thing.

“And it’d just be this nice period of three or four days before the next cycle. We’d go on bushwalks, go to friends’ houses for dinner.

“That was how I got through it – really breaking it down, going, ‘Okay, I’m going through this period of pain right now. It’ll be a period of recovery for five days, and then I’ll be able to do something good at the end of two weeks.’”

Katie was determined to be there for her loved ones, especially for her young son.

“There is no right or wrong reaction to cancer,” says Katie.

“We’re all different people with different reactions and ways of coping.

“The most difficult thing for me has been the impact on my mental health. I have had bad bouts of anxiety, fear, sadness and depression – especially when I think about not being around for my son, to see him fall in love, help him through breakups, teach him to drive…

“The death horizon was suddenly a lot closer and that is very confronting when you previously expected to live another 30–40 years.”

A better way forward for pancreatic cancer

With symptoms often being vague, it’s not unusual for pancreatic cancer to go undiagnosed until later, more advanced stages. Up to 80% of people are diagnosed too late for surgical intervention.

The disease has a 12.2% five-year survival rate, compared to breast cancer’s 92%. This is the likelihood that someone diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is still alive after five years.

“Before I was diagnosed, I didn’t know how different cancers had starkly different survival rates and treatments,” Katie says.

“When I was being treated, I joined a support group of others with pancreatic cancer. There were six of us to begin with – and only two left six months later.”

Researching precision medicine is one way to find treatments that are easier on patients. But according to Dr Dan Croagh, a GI Cancer Institute clinician, the disease’s low survival rates means that it can be difficult to research.

“There’s been a lot of work in trying to bring precision medicine to pancreatic cancer,” Dan says.

“But it’s really challenging. You don’t have a lot of time.”

Dan is leading PemOla, a study currently in development at the GI Cancer Institute. PemOla aims to understand whether patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer will respond well to a combination of immunotherapy drugs.

“It’s offering people some hope in addition to what is standard therapy,” says Dan.

“It makes my job a little bit easier, in a way, if I can say, ‘Well, look, we’re going to pull out all the stops and potentially find a treatment that might be useful for you.’”

In the past few years, Katie’s scans have remained clear. She recently began an exciting new job, and continues to advocate for more and better treatments for pancreatic cancer.

“I think it’s really important, the work that the Institute is doing,” Katie says.

“If you’ve got the community will and the funding for some new treatments for pancreatic cancer, I really think that that could happen.”

You can help make new treatments happen for pancreatic cancer and other GI cancers. Donate to our research today.

This article was featured in The Digest, Issue 4, 2023.

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