When it comes to your health—listen to your body…
Joy Herrick wasn’t feeling quite right. She wasn’t one for Doctors, but thought it might be time for a check-up. She made an appointment in January of 2009. She was examined, x-rayed, and given a clean bill of health. The P.A. suggested she take an over the counter laxative as she may have a bit of constipation. She took the medication and did feel a bit better, for a while.
In April she mentioned she had been losing weight without really trying. When asked if she had thought about seeing a doctor, she said “You know how I feel about doctor’s…I don’t want to take up their time when they could be seeing the people who are really sick, like someone with cancer”. But, since she had a check-up in January she thought everything must be fine. She contributed the weight loss to her decreasing appetite, which she thought was associated with menopausal changes, simple life adjustments she would just need to get used to. Soon thereafter she began feeling nauseous constantly and had frequent stomach upsets. She again chalked it up to dietary issues or aging. By the end of April there was an undeniable pain in her abdomen. By early May she was in so much pain by the end of the day she couldn’t walk through a store or stand long enough to cook dinner at night.
She went back to the doctor on Friday, May 8th, but this time, they found something wrong. There was a large area in her abdomen that was hard where it shouldn’t be. The doctor was concerned and ordered a CT scan for the following Monday. The scan showed a “very large growth” on her liver. Her Dr. said it was probably benign, although a biopsy was ordered immediately. She assured everyone that she would be ok – was preparing for surgery, knowing that if it was a benign tumor and they removed it she would feel so much better. The news from her doctor was not as expected. “It’s cancer”, she said. “Inoperable. Terminal. They think it is everywhere. Going in for more tests and another CT scan but there is nothing they can do”.
The next CT scan revealed that the cancer had metastisized to her lungs. The tumor board that reviewed her case determined that the cancer had originated in her bile duct, spread throughout the rest of her liver and into her lungs. Cholangiocarcinoma they called it. Stage IV. A rare cancer only affecting 1 in 100,000. Usually men, usually in third-world countries, people with an already compromised liver. She fit NONE of the risk factors for this disease.
The doctors told her she could expect to live 6 months without treatment, 10-12 months with chemotherapy, if it worked. She chose chemo as she wanted desperately to be here for all of us as long as she possibly could. And she wanted to do something, anything, even if it was a long shot.
Joy was diagnosed with terminal cancer on May 20, 2009. She began chemotherapy on June 1. She suffered many side effects as the chemo doses prescribed were strong and unrelenting – they had to be, or she would have no chance at all. She suffered extreme nausea, lost her hair, lost weight, became confused with “chemo brain” and the effects of pain medications and endured extreme fatigue. Through all of this, remarkably, she remained positive and upbeat. She hoped against hope that the treatments would shrink the tumors and offer her some relief, and more time.
Joy completed 4 chemotherapy treatments. The day before treatment no. 5, she wasn’t feeling well and was taken to the emergency room with weakness, confusion and difficulty breathing. After being admitted and given a blood transfusion and oxygen she was feeling marginally better. Her Dr. decided to ‘postpone’ her treatment until she was feeling better. He was hoping this was just a set back, there was still hope. But something had changed. Her latest CT scan revealed that the tumors in her lungs appeared to have grown larger. The treatments weren’t working, and they needed to stop.
Joy was released from the hospital on Wednesday, July 29, 2009. She entered the hospice program the next day. By the following Tuesday she was unable to speak or get out of bed. On Wednesday, August 5th she slipped into a coma. At 11:00 pm that evening, she passed away peacefully in her sleep with her family by her side.
Joy was my mother, and I promised her I would spread her message and share her story. She wanted people to know how aggressive and deadly cholangiocarcinoma can be and how quickly it progresses once it is finally detected. Please join me in finding ways to promote early detection, and more thorough screening practices so that others will not have to suffer as my mom did.