Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
Diane Eggert recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for more funding of pancreatic cancer research. She did it in memory of her husband, Paul, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in July 2014.
In the span of five months, Diane Eggert watched pancreatic cancer take her husband’s mobility, health and ultimately his life. As he fought the fast-spreading and painful disease, she remembers Paul had one wish.
“My husband almost every day said, ‘I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,’” Eggert said.
Paul and Diane moved to Trace Crossings in 2011 to be closer to their son, Rob, and daughter, Karen. Paul was 65 years old and recently retired. During a vacation in Hawaii in February 2014, he developed stomach pain and a yellow tinge to his skin. The couple went to the hospital, thinking he had caught a bug, only to find out that he had lumps on his liver.
Upon returning to Birmingham, doctors at UAB Hospital discovered the tumors had metastasized from the original cancer in his pancreas.
Receiving a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Eggert said, is “virtually a death sentence.” According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates start at 12-14 percent for Stage 1 and drop down to 3 percent by Stage 3 and only 1 percent by Stage 4.
“Finding a pancreatic cancer survivor is a rare thing,” Eggert said.
It also hits patients hard and fast.
“His decline was so severe. I mean, it was like one day he could walk and get around, and two to three days later he had to use a cane to get around. Maybe a month later, he was using a wheelchair,” she said.
Though they had only lived in Hoover about two years at the time of his diagnosis, Eggert said their neighbors were generous far beyond her expectations.
“One thing I learned was that people are kind. Even though we hardly had enough time to establish ourselves in the community, people I didn’t even know were showing up at my door with food and offers of help,” Eggert said.
Paul met his goal of living to his 66th birthday on June 26, but did not survive to their wedding anniversary in August. By the time he passed away on July 18, 2014, Paul was bedridden and barely conscious because of the high dosage of pain medication he needed.
Eggert and her daughter swore at first that they would never be involved in advocacy.
“You just want to run away. You don’t want to ever hear about it again,” Eggert said.
Paul’s repeated wish to save others, however, stayed on her mind.
The family started small at first, with participation in Birmingham’s Purple Stride Walk and support groups through the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. In June, Eggert and Karen changed their minds about advocacy, joining 600 volunteers on a trip to Washington, D.C., to advocate to members of Congress for more research funding.
Photo courtesy of Diane Eggert.
Among the 600 volunteers who went to Washington, D.C. with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network were several from Alabama. From left to right: Bridgett Moore of Birmingham, Diane Eggert, U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, Lorrie Greer of Hoover and Laurie Boyle of Mobile.
Their theme for the trip was “Waging Hope.”
“Right now it’s virtually a hopeless situation,” Eggert said. “We want to get it to the point where when you’re told you have pancreatic cancer, you have hope.”
The Action Network volunteers were in the nation’s capital for only a few days, but they made sure to reach as many congressional representatives or staff members as possible. Eggert shared her husband’s story and facts about the disease’s high death rate, encouraging Alabama senators and representatives to support increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, among other organizations.
The majority of volunteers, including Eggert, paid their own way to D.C. because it was something they felt compelled to do.
“Pancreatic cancer is the only one still in the single digits of survivorship. That’s just unacceptable,” Eggert said. “We’ve got to start addressing these things that are taking people far too young.”
Now that she’s returned home, Eggert is facing her first anniversary without Paul, as well as the knowledge that her grandchildren will grow up without many memories of their grandfather.
Sometimes she simply sits in the backyard and remembers her husband. After Paul went into hospice, they turned the yard into a “quiet oasis” of flowers, bird feeders and wind chimes for him to rest and visit family, or simply look out the window from his hospital bed. One of Paul’s friends, a chaplain, planted a hydrangea bush under his window last summer. It bloomed in late June, just a few days before what would have been Paul’s 67th birthday.
To continue fulfilling Paul’s last wish to spare others from the pain of pancreatic cancer, Eggert is considering becoming a patient advocate at local hospitals to provide first-hand information for families dealing with a similar diagnosis. From her advocacy in D.C. and work with others in the Action Network, Eggert has seen that even a single voice can make a difference.
“We don’t want to live over and over what happened to my husband, but you can’t have something like this touch your life and not want to help other people,” Eggert said.
Common Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer
- Pain in the abdomen or back
- Unintended weight loss and little or no appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Blood clots
- Gallbladder enlargement
Information courtesy of the American Cancer Society