Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.
I should be dead because less than 1 per cent of all pancreatic cancer patients survive. Two years ago, when I first heard the news, I was sure I wouldn’t make it, but I’m still alive.
To celebrate, I flew to Arizona to join my hiking buddy Richard on my first major hike since the ordeal. We were in the Superstition Mountains, east of Phoenix, where Apaches believe the hole leading down to the lower world is located. But we were headed up, not down, toward Weavers Needle, a 1,000-foot-high column of rock where they say the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine is hidden. We were less than halfway up the trail and I was completely exhausted. The scorching heat didn’t help.
Beads of sweat ran down my cheeks. I gulped from my water bottle and kicked at the dusty earth. “You okay?” Richard asked. I wanted to bail, but quitting has never been in my nature. The trail wasn’t even steep, but still, it felt scary.
Each year, I make myself do things that terrify me, and Arizona has always been my go-to adventure playground: I’ve canyoneered in Salome Canyon, scrambling over slippery boulders and rappelling off a waterfall into freezing water; I’ve biked through Saguaro National Park with jumping cholla needles stinging my legs; I’ve rock climbed the steep walls of Echo Canyon gripping with my fingertips; and I rafted 16 days on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, plunging my paddle into the huge roiling rapids from my left bow perch. But right now, this hike seemed harder than anything else I’d ever done.
Richard was telling me the story of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, but I was barely listening. I heard snatches of words: “1880s … two prospectors both named Jacob … one called ‘the Dutchman’ because of his accent, even though he was German … the two Jacobs killed two men mining gold … Then the greedy Dutchman killed his partner … the gold mine might be at Weavers Needle …”
I was suddenly feeling very light-headed and I knew it wasn’t the heat. My hands were trembling. “I’m just going to pop into the lady’s room,” I said. Richard walked ahead and I crouched behind a bush and pulled out my testing kit: blood-sugar meter, testing strips, lancets and an insulin pen. Two years ago, when doctors found a malignant cell in my pancreas, they performed an operation called a Whipple, something I thought nuns wore on their heads. (Wrong: That’s a wimple.) This was a six-hour ordeal in which they removed the head of my pancreas and a portion of the bile duct, cut through my gallbladder and duodenum, and then subjected me to six months of chemo to make sure no other bad cells were lurking around. I didn’t lose my hair and I looked the same, so I told no one I was sick. After more than a half a year, I could finally resume my normal life.
But last year, they found a new malignant cell and removed my spleen and entire pancreas, turning me into an instant Type 1 diabetic. I had no idea what that meant; all I knew was that as I lay in the hospital bed and pushed the button on the morphine drip, the nurse explained that, without a pancreas, I could not produce insulin and would have to inject myself at least five times a day. If my blood sugar dropped too low, she said, I could go into a coma and die. If it got too high, that could lead to a heart attack, stroke, kidney disease or blindness.
It was a nightmare, but it was also my new reality. I hated doing the blood testing; there were times my finger wouldn’t stop bleeding when I pricked it, and other times I had to keep sticking my finger because it refused to bleed. Just as bad was waiting for the results of the three-times-yearly scans and worse were the constant highs and lows of my blood glucose. Right now, my number was going down fast – too fast – so I pulled out the emergency supplies I carry with me everywhere. I drank an orange Juicy Juice, popped three Chuckles candies, zipped my pack closed and caught up to Richard, acting as though nothing was wrong.
We finally made it to the top of Peralta. From there, you could see Weavers Needle in the distance, a massive cliff jutting up like a huge anvil. To get there would add at least two more hours to the hike and I had no energy to look for a non-existent gold mine. I was also worried my blood sugar might go dangerously lower, so when Richard asked if I wanted to continue, I did the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life: I said no.
Like the mystery of the Dutchman’s lost mine, I don’t understand all that’s happened to me over the past two years. I used to do scary things to empower myself. Now, I do them to scare the evil thoughts out of my head and to let this disease know it’s not going to get me, no matter how hard it tries. And so what if we didn’t make it to Weavers Needle? I made it to the summit of the Peralta Trail without a pancreas and didn’t end up in the Superstitions’ lower world. I won’t accept a life without adventure, but what I’ve learned in my new normal is that every day is an adventure.
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