Pancreatic Cancer Month: Kayla Walker wants to use lessons from her father's death to teach others
By Kristy Bleizeffer Nov 7, 2016
On March 6, 2016, Harold Walker was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He passed on June 18, surrounded by his six children, grandchildren and his great-grandchild. He’d hoped for six to nine months. He barely got three.
That’s the thing about pancreatic cancer: It is, very often, a fast and merciless killer. Depending on the type, 5-year survival rates for advanced stages range between 1 and 7 percent. It is hard to diagnose and difficult to treat. The American Cancer Society estimates 53,070 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease in 2016, and about 41,780 of those will die.
“I’ve worked in the medical field for 13 years, and I never associated my dad’s stomach symptoms with something this serious. Never,” said Kayla Walker, a medical assistant at Mesa Primary Care.
She has a simple mission for November, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month: Use her dad’s story to get people thinking about their bodies and their symptoms and what’s normal for them. Early detection is usually the only shot a person has at beating this cancer, and early detection is not easy. Here, Kayla talks about her family’s connection to pancreatic cancer and why everyone should at least know the symptoms.
Tell us about your dad.
He was 74, so he wasn’t very old. He and my mother were married for 46 years. He’d always been active. In high school, he lettered in swimming. He even did some gymnastics. He was very athletic, and he stayed that way. He fished, he hunted, and he was very outdoorsy. He liked fly-fishing a lot, and we went on many family camping and boating trips.
He was really into classic cars. His 1969 Chevelle is still sitting in the garage. And, he was a huge Wyoming Cowboy fan. That’s one thing that we all planned together, to meet up in Laramie for a game at least once a year.
The last couple of years, it was more difficult for him to do the things he enjoyed most because he wasn’t feeling well. He and my mother lived in Evanston, right in the corner of the state near Utah. So they went to Salt Lake City for all his treatments. He actually did all his treatments at Huntsman Cancer Institute, which is one of the biggest cancer institutes in the U.S.
His cancer was pretty aggressive, so doctors did palliative chemo. They didn’t do aggressive treatments. I think he did three weeks of chemo, one day a week. He took a break, and then did three weeks of chemo again. He had a follow-up PET scan and the chemo didn’t even touch the cancer. The lesions had grown.
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Why do think your dad’s story could help other people?
Awareness is a huge issue for me because my dad was showing many of the symptoms for a couple of years. He had stomach problems and, at different times, was diagnosed with pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, gerd — all the classic stomach symptoms and the diagnoses that go along with them.
These are also possible symptoms of pancreatic cancer. I believe it was November of last year that they diagnosed him with diabetes – another common symptom.
My parents have a winter home in St. George, Utah, and he went to the hospital there because he was having such terrible arm pain. They did a scan to see what causing the arm and stomach pain, and that’s when they found all the cancer. A tumor on his neck was compressing on a nerve, causing the pain in his arm.
Doctors actually gave him 6 to 9 months, but he didn’t make it that long. That’s why awareness is important to me.
What do people need to know about pancreatic cancer?
That’s a tough question, because it is so hard to diagnose. Pancreatic cancer usually isn’t found until it is Stage 4, and it has metastasized to all sorts of other organs in the body.
No. 1, I would tell people not to ignore stomach pain, or continual nausea or just feeling sick all the time. There is no screening for pancreatic cancer, so having a frank and open conversation with your doctor is important.
What is the purpose of an awareness month then, in your opinion? What do you want people to take from your father’s story?
People need to be aware of their symptoms and what’s normal for their bodies. We have a patient who comes in here, and she had the same stomach pains as my father. My mind went straight to pancreatic cancer. She doesn’t have it, but people shouldn’t be afraid to talk to their doctor about it if they have those kinds of symptoms.
Just like if you feel a lump in your breast, you want to get it checked. But if you’re having these kinds of symptoms, I feel like people should be aware of those because it is so hard to diagnose. See your primary care provider and get your yearly physical.
Did your father ever come to peace with his cancer?
He did. He was so strong. He said, “This is just what it is.”
He was hoping for 6 to 9 months, but he told us kids: “If the gospel is true, we’ll be together again.” I think he was really scared; I think he was depressed, but he didn’t show it. He wanted to be strong for us so we didn’t have to feel sad. He wanted us to be OK.
How many kids did he have?
There are six of us. I’m second to the youngest, the baby girl. He has nine grandkids and one great-grandkid.
We were all with him when he passed away. He was at home. He got really, really sick very fast. One week he was at home, and they had talked about palliative care. The next day, they were talking hospice care. By the end of the week, he had passed away.
He’d lost a lot of weight, he was jaundiced. It was good for him to be at home with all of us around him, but it was really hard, too.
Does going through something like this make you a better caregiver?
I’m definitely more empathetic. And I was before, but I feel more for people when they’re not feeling good. Or if they have a bad diagnosis, it scares me. Cancer is such a nasty, yucky thing that I just wish people didn’t have to go through it and be that sick.
Why did you go into health care?
Honestly, I watched a lot of ER back in the day. I said, “I want to do that. I want to help people.” I’ve just stuck with it.
I hear Mesa Primary Care is going to be observing Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month all through November.
It’s kind of funny because I was going to go talk to Dr. (Andy) Dunn about this, and before I had a chance to approach him, he came to me and said, “Kayla. I want to do something for pancreatic cancer.”
So it just kind of became a thing. Every Wednesday, we’re going to wear purple. Nov. 17 is the actual Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day, and we are going to observe that as well. I wear a bracelet all the time for my dad, and I wear a purple pin on my badge. I bought it at the gift shop at Huntsman Cancer Institute when Dad was getting treatment.
How does it make you feel that your coworkers are getting behind Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month?
It’s overwhelming, honestly. It’s amazing to see that kind of support. This is a great group of people and they are so supportive.