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As told to Know Your Value's Julianne Pepitone:
In some ways, it’s hard to remember what our lives were like before my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Justin and I met when he was in residency at Ohio State University, where I was a registered nurse, and it was love at first sight. We started a family and first had Annabelle, now 4, and Jamison, 1. During that time we moved to Fairfax, Virginia, where Justin was putting in long hours working as a maxillofacial surgeon at a private practice.
So life was really busy, but it was great. And then everything changed.
Soon after we had Jamison in January 2017, Justin complained of stomach pains. A lot of people said it was probably just the stress of the new baby, plus Justin was studying for his boards. A doctor put him on ulcer medication but it didn’t help. That began what would be a six-month search for answers: endless tests, scopes and scans that all came back negative, and even a gallbladder-removal surgery that June.
When Justin received his diagnosis last summer, the doctors told us he had a 15 percent chance of seeing Christmas 2017. But here we are heading to Thanksgiving 2018. It feels like we have this extra, borrowed time, and we’re making the most of it.
By that point Justin had lost 50 pounds. He was quite literally skin and bones. We had seen at least 15 doctors, and after researching online daily I found a doctor at Johns Hopkins talking about a rare gallbladder problem that could cause the kind of pain Justin was in. We flew him there, and the doctor took one look and said, “I don’t think you have what I treat, but if I can’t help you, I will find someone who can.”
I credit that doctor with saving Justin’s life. He ordered new tests and we got our answer within 48 hours of arriving at Johns Hopkins: Justin had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. After six months of searching, it was a hard crash.
I have cried so much since that day in July 2017 that I couldn’t begin to measure it. But as a wife, mother and working woman, I’ve also felt an incredible amount of gratitude.
When Justin received his diagnosis last summer, the doctors told us he had a 15 percent chance of seeing Christmas 2017. But here we are heading to Thanksgiving 2018. It feels like we have this extra, borrowed time, and we’re making the most of it. Simple moments feel exalted: Dinner at home on a Tuesday night becomes this very special experience, because we know how lucky we are to have it.
We feel especially grateful for that time given that our kids are so young. One of Justin’s biggest fears was that our children won’t remember him. So we’ve been able to have conversations that a lot of families don’t get to have, and we work to make as many memories as we can with the time we have. It’s certainly changed me as a mother: With Annabelle, I used to get stressed out when she’d cry as a baby, fussing over how to help. Now with Jamison, I actually smile when he cries, because I am so grateful to have two healthy children.
I’m also relieved that Justin was able to undergo a procedure called a celiac block, which burns the nerves that feed the pancreas, as that has reduced his pain and improved his quality of life so significantly.
I wasn’t always able to feel gratitude amid all of this pain. Justin and I certainly had our “why me?” time. He’s 39, I’m 35, and we really had only two years of time together between the end of his residency and his diagnosis. It doesn’t feel like enough. He went through an angry period, while I suffered depression earlier this year. And it isn’t linear; we both have our bad days and good days, and Justin’s chemo is inherently cyclical in that you feel fine one week and bad the next. It took support groups and the help of caring people like our family doctor, relatives and friends to get us to this point.
But when we look for the good, I feel like the world is hugging us from every angle. Strangers donating to our cause, friends and family watching the kids and bringing over dinners—that’s what helps me pick myself up and be that pillar for my husband and my children. We moved back to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, because we needed that support.
I also think about my mom, who died of cancer in 2006. She was the most wonderful woman in the darkest of times. And she was the most grateful woman I ever knew. I saw her strength in the way she fought her cancer for two years, and in the way she prepared us for her death. There must have been days she felt angry, but instead she was grateful and graceful until the very end.
The memory of my mom, and leaning on our friends and family, helped me begin to feel grateful. Then that feeling built on itself; when the gratitude and good thoughts come in, it’s like they wash away the bad. If you look for what you don’t have, you’ll find it. But I try to see how fortunate I am for the time I have with Justin and my children, and I focus on that hug we’re getting from the world.
I think being as positive and grateful as I can now will be good practice for the day we hope won’t come for Justin, but probably will. We will need that gratitude to get us through.