After retiring from being a truck driver for 38 years, Bill was especially enjoying time with his four grandchildren, woodworking, and making home improvements on the property that he owned with his wife, Lee Anne. He and Lee Anne were married for 32 and half years.
In April 2015, Bill began experiencing digestive changes. “After you live with someone for so long, you know their habits and you know when they don’t feel well. Bill started getting sick about every other week. Then those times of sickness would get closer and closer together,” says Lee Anne. “We decided that he needed to be checked out by his doctor. After extensive bloodwork and a colonoscopy later, they didn’t find anything wrong.”
Weeks later Bill’s symptoms continued to worsen, and he was getting nauseous and having intense back pain. After returning to the doctor, a CT scan showed a mass on his pancreas. Knowing that it was likely pancreatic cancer, Lee Anne felt numb and couldn’t speak without crying. In just a few days, Bill, Lee Anne and their daughter met with Dr. Jacob Dowden, HPB surgeon with University Surgical Associates who specializes in pancreatic cancer surgery.
“Dr. Dowden confirmed the diagnosis and told us it appeared to be stage 3,” remembers Lee Anne. “We were all in shock, but being the optimistic encourager that he always was, Bill hugged us both and told us everything is going to be ok.”
Dr. Dowden explained that he was part of a tumor board, a meeting of cancer specialists and support team members that discusses every aspect of a person’s diagnosis to come up with the most effective treatment plan. The team determined that they would use chemotherapy first to shrink the tumor before attempting surgery to remove it. Bill began chemotherapy right before Thanksgiving in 2015.
Photo credit: Leigh Ann Atwell Photography
“I just remember thinking, ‘how long do we have?’ How many more Thanksgivings will we be together?” says Lee Anne. “It was a very special Thanksgiving that year. We both have large families, and we made the most of that time together. Thankfully, Bill didn’t start experiencing the side effects of the chemo until after the holiday.”
Making the Most of Their TimeAfter six weeks of chemotherapy that ended in early 2016, Dr. Dowden said that Bill was now eligible for surgery. “I knew that few people who have pancreatic cancer even get to surgery because the symptoms of the cancer are so vague, and a diagnosis often comes late. We always looked for the hidden blessings in these difficult times,” Lee Anne shares.
What followed for Bill was not a dramatic transformation. He was in and out of the hospital with various issues related to his cancer and underwent several procedures to battle the effects the cancer was having on his body. They did a second of round of chemotherapy, and Bill spent more than 70 days in the hospital in 2016 and more than 50 in 2017. He was strong in the face of great difficulty, and in this time of trial, Lee Anne, Bill and their family continued to look for small victories.
Throughout Bill’s illness, Lee Anne threw herself into the role of caregiver, thanks to incredibly supportive coworkers and family members who jumped in to help in whatever way they could. After a difficult battle that lasted 20 months, Bill passed away in July 2017.
“Bill fought very hard, and he had a great attitude about it all up until the very end. We had time to talk through everything, and he wanted me to take care of myself after he was gone,” says Lee Anne. “I don’t think there’s a period where you grieve and then are done with that grief – you just take it one day at a time and put one foot in front of the other. I lean on my family and friends for support, and I will always keep Bill’s memory alive.”
A New Chapter of LivingIn the last year and a half, Lee Anne has embraced this new chapter in her life. She’s doing exactly what she and Bill discussed – living her life to the fullest. That’s meant a lot of firsts – she’s taken a solo vacation and eaten dinner alone. She flew to visit her son in Virginia and went on a hot air balloon ride, a hobby she’s developed a passion for.
“On my first hot air balloon ride, I teared up thinking of him. But going through something like this teaches you to be bold and very brave,” says Lee Anne. “We only have so much time here, and you must live life.”
The Best CareLee Anne notes that she was overwhelmed with the care and compassion she received from the oncologists, surgeons, nurses and everyone involved in Bill’s care. “We had the absolute best care, and everyone we encountered was so wonderful to us. I could ask questions and call at any time. We never felt like a number, we always seemed to be the focus whenever we called,” says Lee Anne. “I just assumed that we would have to travel to receive this level of care, but it turned out that we had all we needed here at home. That was such a comfort to us.”
For anyone facing a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and their families, Lee Anne wants you to know that you’re not alone. She suggests writing everything down, asking any question no matter how small, and reaching out to others who have gone through the experience. These things helped her maintain a sense of normalcy and control in the face of her husband’s illness.
“Stay focused on what they need in that very moment. Take pictures of your loved ones, be there for them, advocate for them,” she says. “Bill and I were determined to make the best of it, and I feel like really did. He fought long, and he fought hard. I was quite proud of him.”