It’s been little more than a year since Alison Greenhill lost her husband Richard to pancreatic cancer. Richard was 47 at the time of his death and the couple had been married for 18 years. They had a tortoiseshell cat named Nibbles. Richard was a Registered Nurse and Alison worked for and continues to work for a major airline. Despite a history of Crohn’s disease, Richard was a generally healthy guy so when he started complaining of stomach pains in September 2016 he was referred to a gastroenterologist.
The couple had just returned home from a cruise and Richard’s stomach pains were severe enough to send him to the hospital, but all the test results done by the gastroenterologist were negative. The doctors didn’t know what was causing the pain, but it continued through December when Richard was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis as a possible result of Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause abdominal pain and lead to a host of other issues so the diagnosis made sense.
But, in January Richard was back in the hospital with jaundice and he received a couple of stents to relieve bile duct blockage. He also had a number of tests done including an MRI and several lab and blood tests, but there still seemed to be no definitive answer as to what was causing Richard to be so sick. Alison recalls being frustrated that they still didn’t have more answers and says she felt like things were moving at a snail’s pace. Richard, she says, thought his symptoms indicated cancer, but on his birthday, also in January, they were told that Richard did not have cancer. “When they said it wasn’t cancer, it was his birthday,” says Alison. “We couldn’t have gotten better news.”
Ten days later Richard started vomiting and was back in the hospital with a blood infection. Alison says he recovered from the infection, but that it had almost killed him and that doctors were still saying they weren’t sure what was wrong. Finally, at the end of February Richard got referred to the Mayo clinic. Alison says they got there on a Thursday and by Friday evening the oncology department had been added to Richard’s daily report. Richard had stage four, pancreatic cancer that had metastasized. “It was the worst possible diagnosis with the worst possible cancer,” says Alison. “We were just numb.”
The Mayo Clinic oncologist suggested Richard start chemotherapy and referred him to a local oncologist who took over his case. Two weeks later, in March, he started chemo. During chemo, Alison says his numbers were going down, but Richard had a bowel blockage, another bout of jaundice, and an infection that interrupted his chemo. They learned that the tumor was covering his pancreas and he had another tumor on his liver. By the end of June he was in Hospice care. Richard remained positive through it all, says Alison. “My husband was like a rock. I don’t know how he did it,” she says adding that Richard made peace with his diagnosis. “We decided we were going to handle things the best we could.”
After his death, Alison says she had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of anger, but that, through Hospice, she got a grief counselor who helped her through each step of her grief. “She was wonderful from the beginning,” says Alison who focuses on remaining positive rather than letting herself get caught up in questioning why they were told Richard didn’t have cancer and why his cancer wasn’t found sooner. “I wish we would have known more. We didn’t know what we were working with,” says Alison, but she knows they did the best they could at the time. “I can’t keep going backward,” she says. “I would never be able to move forward.”
Along with the grief counselor and exercise, which she says helps her to stay positive and outgoing, Alison says she learned to accept help from others. “You have to let people do things for you. As time went on I realized I can’t do this by myself,” she says. Alison received a lot of help from her parents and had a strong support group. “Lean on your family. Let people help you,” she advises. Although it’s been difficult reaching each milestone or holiday throughout the year she says, “I’m better than I was a year ago.”
Now, Alison says it is important to her that others might benefit from what she and Richard went through. “I pray every day that no one else has to go through this,” she says. Richard also hoped his story might help others. “He said that he hoped one day we could help someone else,” she says. “He said people can learn from this.”
Alison wants people to hear her story and know they aren’t alone, but more importantly she wants people to do whatever it takes to get answers.“You’ve really got to speak up for the patient,” emphasizes Alison. “If you don’t have the answers and the doctors don’t give you the answers, don’t take no for an answer. Take it to the next level.” Alison says that patients and caregivers shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and to push for more information. She says, “Keep fighting for your person.”
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.