real life

'My sister was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Just 11 weeks later, she was gone.'

As told to Polly Taylor

Dancing in a dive bar to Boy George with my sister Kathy, it had been decades since we had a sister night out.

I'd flown from my home in Melbourne, to visit her in Maine, USA, where she lived with her husband - and she surprised me with a night out at the locally famous Bubba's Sulky Lounge - just the two of us.

Image: Supplied.

But by the end of the evening, with me icing my sore ankle, and her with a heat pack on her back, we were painfully reminded we were both now in our fifties.


Spending so much time together we both shared feelings about how the other was travelling. Kathy wanted me to carve out time for myself that my children were bigger. I wanted her to follow up on why her back was being such a problem.

For months now, she'd been speaking about it in our weekly phone calls.

She told me she'd tried acupuncture, physio, chiro - she even bought a new mattress. Unfortunately, she was still uncomfortable. It wasn't getting better.

I felt a little uneasy about her back, but I also knew she was doing all the right things to address the issue.

When I got back to Australia, Kathy went a little quiet. Our weekly phone calls became less frequent, and we got into a pattern of short texts and simple responses. It wasn't like her and as the weeks passed; I felt uneasy and a little worried, but I kept telling myself she was just busy in her job and we'd chat soon. 

Then, on that AFL Grand Final September Saturday morning in 2018, she phoned me.

Apologetically, Kathy told me she'd followed up with her doctor about her sore back, and they'd discovered she had pancreatic cancer. It was stage four and had spread to her liver and spleen.

I sank into the pillows on my bed and tried to calm my panic so I could listen and understand what she was saying. At that time, I didn't know much about pancreatic cancer. I thought it was a rare cancer 90-year-old men got. Not strong, vibrant women in their 50s.


Watch: Bachelorette Georgia Love opens up about her mother's pancreatic cancer. Story continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

I flew back to the States on the first flight out the next morning to be with my family as we figured out how to support Kathy and what to do next. Time passed painfully slowly, as she planned her treatment and care.

Over the next 11 weeks, Kathy was in hospital most days, only having a stay at home for five days before returning. There were two rounds of chemo that did more harm than good it seemed. Procedures to help with pain management were only marginally effective. 

I don't think I quite accepted it initially, but it became apparent that Kathy's care was already palliative.

We made the best of the time we had. Most of this time was filled with just being together and trying to do "normal" things. We'd tell stories from our past, watch sports, or plan the meals for the week for everyone except her. 

Some days I wanted to ask her questions, wondering how I could help her get ready to leave us. It never happened like that, though. Instead, it was Kathy's deep faith that guided as all. Her faith comforted her, and she knew she would be okay. In turn, I was comforted too.


Image: Supplied.

I loved that I was her sleepover buddy every night. I would make up my stretcher bed next to her and settle in by her side. We'd talk about the snow that came early (before Thanksgiving) that locals believe mean it's going to be a harsh winter. We listened to the chatter of the beautiful nurses who cared so deeply and well for her. We greeted the staff who cleaned her room every morning and Kathy would notice if they had gotten their hair done, or ask about their weekend. Kathy was kind, brave, and stoic. Even on her hardest days, she thought of others and made them feel special and appreciated.


Image: Supplied.

In Kathy's last week, she was moved to a hospice room on the ward where we could all stay, visit, sit with her and each other. They told us that hearing is the last sense to go, so we talked to her, reassured her we'd be okay and played her favourite music.

We all knew what was coming. When Kathy's palliative nurse told us she thought it was going to be that night, we made sure we were all there. 


It doesn't matter how grave you've been told it is, nothing prepares you for the moment a loved one actually slips away from you. It was a harrowing time for us all, but an absolute privilege to be with her.

From diagnosis to death, Kathy lived for just 11 weeks.

I know now this is not uncommon with pancreatic cancer. It is aggressive, and it is silent. Late detection means it's often terminal from the moment it's found.

The days, weeks, and months that followed Kathy's death were a blur of grief. I truly don't know how I managed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, but somehow I did. My husband, Wayne and our kids, Grace and Thomas allowed me the space to grieve and the love to get through this loss together.

Eight months later, just when I was starting to feel a little more grounded, life threw me another curve ball.

I was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. Although it was such a shock, it was immediately apparent just how different my own cancer journey was going to be.

Firstly, I was told I had over a 90 percent chance of recovery. For pancreatic cancer, the five-year survival rate is just 12 per cent.

After a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and a breast reconstruction, I was offered more support than I could ever have hoped for - specialist nurses, occupational therapists, exercise physiologists. There were many survivor stories that got me through.


Listen to No Filter where Sally Obermeder shares her breast cancer journey. Story continues after podcast.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for pancreatic cancer. I don't advise looking up pancreatic cancer survival stories as I'm afraid there aren't many to be found. Only three out of 10 people (35.5 per cent) will survive one year after diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

This is why I'm telling our story. There needs to be more awareness, more funding, more research into pancreatic cancer. Funding means research can happen. Research means the ability to change the outcomes for those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer will happen. These developments could include early detection, screening, more effective and less traumatic treatment, and support for families and carers.

The early symptoms can seem innocuous - back pain, fatigue, stomach, and digestive problems. If these symptoms creep up randomly, or continue to be persistent, don't ignore them. See you doctor and tell them you are concerned and would like to have it investigated. These symptoms should not be ignored.

While every cancer diagnosis is traumatic, I carry a bit of survivor guilt. Why is it I got a cancer I could beat, and my sister and many others do not? I was given hope, support, and options. How can we make this possible for pancreatic cancer patients?

I've decided, based on these experiences, to dedicate the rest of my life trying to change that.

Feature Image: Supplied.