Drowning My Cancer Fears in Cupcakes

Rev. Barkley Thompson
Cheryl Hodges
Cheryl Hodges

Certain things strike fear into our hearts; one of mine is when I hear the mention of pancreatic cancer. I feel a little sick and then quickly repress the very thought of this dreaded disease. This reaction is predictably due to a personal connection—my mother died of it in 1995 at the age of 57.

I watched, helpless, as she went from a CAT scan diagnosis through 3 months of hell as her body twisted, turned, groaned and wasted its way toward certain death.  “My body betrays me,” she wryly observed somewhat early in this trajectory. There was little time for conversation about what was to come or what had been; there was mostly just day-to-day unfolding of the inevitable—in the most unseemly and sorrowful ways. It is no wonder I freeze at the words. Most all of us have such reference points if we have lived for even a few decades.

There is a surprising camaraderie amongst hospice visitors. We are all there to live out an amazing duality. We try to be as helpful and encouraging as possible, to interact as though this is the most normal and natural, acceptable place to be. Yet we are all there to walk our loved one to the very last moment of life, to accompany them to the last fleeting second until they pass on to what comes next…leaving us behind to experience the stunning silence that now occupies where they have been.

The pancreas is the only organ I know of that has a “tail” on it, which automatically sounds suspect…it conjures the impression that it is a creature in its own right.  Having a tumor in the tail appears to result in poorer survival rates than in other areas of the pancreas. Tail notwithstanding, if your pancreas has cancer in it, it is a nasty beast indeed.

When Randy Pausch, the good-looking, likeable, and extremely gifted Carnegie Mellon professor, entered the public consciousness with his “Last Lecture,” I initially watched in awe as he laid open his life with a sort of reckless optimism that was his signature trait, as he, too, battled pancreatic cancer.  He put such a cheerful spin on his situation that I actually visited websites and did a little light research on the subject, believing that perhaps the prognosis of pancreatic cancer was no longer quite the hopeless situation I had known it to be. Sadly, while there have been some advances, in general it is still an aggressive cancer that is rarely cured. Interestingly, he did not make much reference to what caused such optimism; he seemed to will it to be so—there was not much mention of faith or a higher power other than a short explanation that he viewed these things as mostly a personal matter. He did not seem terribly concerned about what was to come next.

Some time ago I read of an interesting cultural concept in Japan that seems somewhat silly, although our own population is constantly obsessing over equally ridiculous ideas. The Japanese are very interested in one’s blood type; it has become a cultural axis of sorts—guiding people concerning decisions on jobs, potential mates and all sorts of things. One’s blood type supposedly corresponds to certain traits or predispositions and all this is taken quite seriously. Some companies even group their employees by blood type. It reminds me of our once-intense horoscope fixation – the common denominator being that a fixed reality (i.e. star patterns or the molecular structure of your blood) can be consulted as a guide to one’s life and/or future…sort of a veiled attempt to get a handle on what comes next.

Just as I was dismissing this out of hand, I read of a study that linked the risk of pancreatic cancer to blood type. For the record, “0” blood type carries no increased risk; type B is greatest at 72% more likely, AB is next at 51% and type A carries a 32% greater risk. I’m not saying I’m over-the-top celebrating, but being a type A might be worth a cupcake party anyway. I’ll bring the sparkling grape juice (drinking also increases the risk of pancreatic cancer).  Maybe the Japanese are chuckling at their “in” to figuring out some of life’s mysteries after all.

While you are out getting your blood typed, it might be worth noting that even though we can all weigh the risks of whatever happens to frighten us most, the real issue bothering us is the “what comes next,” is it not? We can talk about that over cupcakes.

By Cheryl Hodges
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