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It was uncharacteristic for Tammy Richardson to nap. The wife, mother, and grandmother had too much to do. But in January, she felt a little fatigue and was having some heartburn.
A few days passed and she noticed her urine was discolored. Her family physician prescribed five days of antibiotics for what was believed to be a urinary tract infection. But when Richardson noticed yellowing in her eyes, she returned to the doctor for lab work that revealed her bilirubin was elevated and her liver enzymes were high.
She spent Super Bowl Weekend quarantined for suspected mono or hepatitis. All the while she says she had no pain.
The day after her 53rd birthday – February 8 - is one she will never forget. She ended up in the emergency room at IU Health Methodist Hospital. Scans showed a blockage and her cancer markers were high. Everything pointed to pancreatic cancer.
“It was just so hard to grasp,” said Richardson, who managed a medical practice. “After reading the CT scans, and no pain, the ER doctor greeted me with a statement. ‘Well, you don’t look like a typical cancer patient.’”
In short, she was the picture of health.
Richardson recently spent her final day of infusion at IU Health Simon Cancer Center talking about her journey.
As she talked, she smiled with each sentence. She wore a purple t-shirt (purple is the color for pancreatic cancer awareness). November is “Pancreatic Cancer Awareness” month when patients and healthcare providers speak out about the disease to help educate others.
That smile, says her husband Tim, was her greatest defense against the disease. It was her way of telling others she’d be ok.
“It was because of her optimism, that I was able to endure the difficult process of watching my child go through this,” said her mother Wanda Backus.
Most mornings, Richardson got out of bed, put on her makeup, fixed her hair, and faced the day thinking positive about the road to recovery.
“There’s that word ‘cancer’ that we think of as a death sentence,” said Richardson, who was under the care of Hematology and Oncology Doctor Safi Shahda. “People get diabetes, heart disease, and other health issues and they are treated. For whatever reason, we look at cancer as something other than a disease,” she said.
It was something new for Richardson, and she learned quickly what those words “pancreatic cancer” meant.
The pancreas sits behind the stomach, on the right side of the belly. Pancreatic cancer starts when cells in the pancreas grow out of control. Richardson was diagnosed with ampulla cancer. The American Cancer Society describes this cancer as starting in the ampulla - where the bile duct and pancreatic duct come together and empty into the small intestine. Ampulla cancers often block the bile duct while they're still small and have not spread far. The blockage causes bile to build up in the body, which leads to yellowing of the skin and eyes.
Richardson’s cancer was detected early. On March 10, under the care of surgical oncologist Dr. Michael House, Richardson underwent a Pancreaticoduodenectomy (commonly called the Whipple procedure), surgery to remove the head of her pancreas, her gallbladder, and bile duct, as well as portions of her small intestine.
“I learned the Whipple was critical and Dr. House had performed over 1,000 of them. Upon meeting him I had an instant feeling of confidence and knew he was going to be the one for me. He was a straight shooter, but was positive and offered encouragement.”
Post-surgery biopsy results indicated cancer had invaded the soft tissue of her pancreas. What they originally thought was Stage 1, was Stage 3. In May she began six months of chemotherapy.
Even with declining energy, Richardson celebrated her mother’s 86th birthday, joined her grandchildren on trips to theme parks, and her girlfriends at the lake.
One of her friends, Michelle Ester-Bode who instructed a Pilates class that Richardson attended faithfully commended Richardson for her positive attitude.
“It has been a difficult journey-one full of uncertainties, fear, sickness and the list goes on and on,” said Ester-Bode. “Through it all I was in awe of this beautiful soul that would come faithfully to Pilates with her contagious smile and steadfast faith. I was honored to be a front row observer as she walked her walk with grace, beauty and above all faith. I was graced to be able to share a tiny bit of me and help keep her body strong through the difficult journey. I don't know how many people she has touched but from the outpouring of love I have witnessed from afar it's been many.”
In August Richardson took a road trip to Nashville to view the solar eclipse and in September she began reaching out on Facebook to other patients she called “Whipple Warriors.” She wanted to know more about the long-term effects of her disease.
“It has been so helpful to receive instant feedback from others with my diagnosis and symptoms,” said Richardson. “Sometimes, it helps just hearing their encouraging words, hopeful stories and survival rates.”
Throughout her care and recovery, Richardson chose a favorite Bible verse from Proverbs as her focus: “She is clothed in strength and dignity and laughs without fear of the future.”
As she recently finished her last infusion and rang the bell signaling the end of active treatment Richardson said “I couldn’t have gotten through this without friends, family and my faith. Without our faith, everything else is just a Band Aid. I know there is a purpose in all of this. I hope the outcome will be that I can help others because that’s my greatest passion.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.