‘I was in my mom’s ICU room when I received the call from my husband. ‘It’s stage IV pancreatic cancer. I’ve got 6 months. I’m a dead man walking.’: Woman shares grief losing her ‘anchors’

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Disclaimer: This story contains details of grief which may be upsetting to some.

“Life doesn’t go as planned, and nothing lasts forever.

It was the spring of 2013, and my life was idyllic in so many ways. My husband Alan, an ENT physician/surgeon, was the love of my life. We had a fairy-tale romance, and he truly was my best friend and rock.

Husband with stage IV pancreatic cancer stands smiling with wife outside

Alan had a growing medical practice and was adored and respected by his patients and the community. I had taken some time off from my counseling career to help raise our three beautiful children. I was immersed in motherhood and my family. When Alan could get away, we all enjoyed traveling together on medical mission trips to Mexico to care for children in rural, underserved communities. Everything seemed perfect until it suddenly wasn’t.

My mother Dorrie, always a force of a woman and the other rock in my life, had not been feeling well. One day as she was resting on our couch, I went to check on her, and she was unresponsive. By the time we arrived at the hospital, she had slipped into a coma, and we learned she had suffered a brain aneurysm.

My next few days were spent in the ICU, waiting for test results and wondering if she was going to live. It was scary to see my mom diminished by the tubes and machines around her. This strong woman now appeared so small and helpless.

At the same time, Alan had been feeling under the weather, too. For a few weeks, his stomach had been bothering him. This particular morning, he went to work with a stomachache, performed nine minor surgeries and then went to get a CT scan.

The call came when I was in my mom’s ICU room. I was pacing, as I often did, trying to understand what was happening and worried about whether she was ever going to come out of the coma. When my phone rang, I was relieved to hear Alan’s voice on the other end. I greeted him hopefully, ‘Hi! What did you find out?’ His response, ‘Get the kids and come home, Pam. We need to have a family meeting.’

Man with pancreatic cancer stands with his son and wife with younger son and daughter sitting in front of them

This wasn’t like him. My hand tightened on the phone, ‘Alan, what’s wrong?’ ‘It’s stage IV pancreatic cancer. I’ve got maybe six months. I’m a dead man walking.’ My knees hit the ground before I knew I’d fallen. Instinctually, I crawled toward my mother who had always been my source of strength and support. From beneath the stainless steel of her hospital bed, I screamed, ‘Mom, I need your help! Wake up!’

These two incredible people were my anchors. They were the tethers that kept me grounded, and in the course of just a few days, those ties were suddenly cut loose. It was a cruel one-two punch. The next six months became a battle for both of their lives.

I found myself thrust into the roles of healthcare advocate and caregiver for both of them — all while trying to keep life as normal as possible for my children. My days became an endless tennis match of bouncing from my mom to Alan, deciphering complicated bills, fighting for insurance coverage, scheduling procedures, tracking down test results, and securing medical supplies and prescriptions. Raised as a competitive athlete, I was taught to never throw in the towel. And I was determined to win – to do whatever I could to save both of them.

Teen boys stand outside with arms around each other while their sister stands in front of them in matching t-shirts

Alan began chemotherapy, and together we delved into the latest research on promising pancreatic cancer treatments, eventually uncovering hope in the form of a breakthrough immunotherapy clinical trial. This led to a new battle with the FDA to secure fast-track access. Time was our greatest enemy. Alan was becoming weaker and weaker.

Meanwhile, my mom started to awaken and make gradual progress only to experience a second brain bleed that landed her on life support. She was moved to a nursing home and cycled between improvement and additional setbacks.

This journey became a roller coaster of ups and downs — with every high followed by a new low. Alan’s clinical trial was finally approved, but it was too late. His condition had become too weak. His organs began to shut down, and I knew our time was fading. Alan passed away peacefully on September 27, 2013. My mom continued on for many years but was never really the same. She passed away in 2017.

When Alan first died, I felt as if I had nothing left to give. For six months, my primary mission had been to save his life, and it had failed. I had failed. We had won battles but had lost the war. Before he died, life had color. Afterward, everything went grey and silent, painfully silent.

The winter holidays arrived, and I felt empty. Then came an unexpected email from Alan’s best friend Jeff. There at the top was a handsome photo of Alan, casually smiling back at me. The note from Jeff said, ‘As rough as it was, I edited these videos from Alan for you and the kids.’

My heart fluttered. My eyes blurred. My hands quivered as I clicked on the link, and there was my Alan: ‘Hi Pam. I just wanted to say a few words in case I haven’t had a chance to say it. You have been a rock. Your strength, your spirit, your ability to never give up … I’ve never seen anything like it. I will love you forever and with all my heart. Continue to be a great, caring, strong woman. We will meet up again.’

Ninety seconds of love from beyond. And there were similar videos for each of my children. One last beautiful gift from Alan. It was the inspiration I needed to push forward. It was the voice that spoke directly to my heart, telling me that I needed to place a comma rather than a period.

Where am I now? I have allowed my pain and love to fuel me to become a more compassionate, grateful person, looking for new journeys and joys. I began to use my caregiving experience to help friends, neighbors and even colleagues of Alan’s who have been confronted with a cancer diagnosis or death. I find hope and strength being there for others, helping them navigate the complicated health system and talking about their feelings and grief.

I also wrote a book — Listening for Echoes – an Amazon bestseller that chronicles my journey through and out of the darkness. My purpose in writing was to share a message of resilience and hope.

And finally, I have worked with a nonprofit organization in my community – New Hope for Kids – to establish the Dr. Alan J. Saffran educational scholarship. New Hope provides support for grieving children who have lost a parent, and this new scholarship will be awarded annually to a program participant to help cover the cost of education after high school. Education was one of Alan’s core values, and he instilled it in our three children. We are fortunate that they have been able to continue to pursue their educational goals after his death and want to afford the same to a child who may not have the necessary resources.

I can’t turn back time. None of us can. Whatever comes next may never be perfect, but it can still be wonderful. On the darkest days, listen to the echoes of your life. You are not alone, you have what it takes to survive, and life can have color and laughter and beauty again.”

Wife whose husband passed from pancreatic cancer stands in football stadium with her three kids

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Pam Saffran. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read more inspirational cancer battles here:

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