After Mom’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, every moment becomes precious, strange

I have always had an obsession with knowing what will happen next. I check on a nightly basis and have a predilection for scanning the TV listings so that I can plan my Sunday afternoons accordingly.

But lately, I’ve learned that sometimes there is just no way of knowing how life will unfold.

You see, my mom was recently diagnosed with inoperable stage IV pancreatic cancer. It hurts even to write these words down: I am still not used to saying them in my head, let alone out loud.

Mom is 53 years old, but to me, she is ageless. When I used to picture the “grown-up” future that lay in store for me — golden retriever, marriage, kids (precisely in that order) — she was always a fixture in it, celebrating life’s glorious moments with me and bolstering me during the tougher times. The closest I ever thought about her aging was when I would read articles about fortysomethings having to serve as “adult caregivers.”


That all changed the day Mom was given her prognosis, a day I keep referencing again and again, as if it will make everything go away. After a biopsy pointed to pancreatic cancer, Mom had been scheduled to have an eight-hour surgery to remove a part of her pancreas and spleen. The surgeon informed us that, should the cancer have spread, they would not be able to operate. But my family and I still clung to the hope that Mom didn’t even have cancer, that it was all one big mistake.

After waiting for several hours in the hospital with no word from the surgeon, I assumed we were in the clear and that the operation had, indeed, proceeded. Giddy with optimism, my boyfriend and I retreated to a cafe to get iced teas. I told him, “If they can operate, I’ll be the happiest person. Just as long as they can operate.”

But minutes later, my dad called my cellphone, his voice grimmer than I had ever heard. “You need to come back to the waiting room immediately,” he said. It was then that I realized that life as I knew it would never be the same.

We hurried back to the waiting room in a daze. I was met by the somber faces of my mom’s best friends. I felt like I had stepped into the middle of a movie set, in which I was playing the role of the grief-stricken daughter. I was led into a private room with my father, sister and the surgeon. I was informed that the cancer had spread from Mom’s pancreas and the doctors were unable to operate. We were told that fewer than 5% of individuals with pancreatic cancer live more than five years after diagnosis, and that the average patient with stage IV pancreatic cancer typically lives just six months to a year.


This all occurred two months ago, and I still can’t grapple with the concept that this woman who has taught me everything I know about anything might not always be there. Sometimes I pinch myself, hoping that I am in the midst of a horrible nightmare. But then I’ll see my mom, putting on a brave front in spite of the toll that chemo has taken on her, or I’ll see the utter sorrow in my dad’s eyes, and I know that this disease is very real and that it has, indeed, afflicted my entire family.

So what do I do? I cry about the unfairness of it all, often moved to tears at the most inopportune times (grocery checkout line, anyone?). And I question how this could happen to the kindest person I know. But I also try to tune out the voice in my head that is always asking “What’s next?” and focus on the possibility that lies before me.

I have come to cherish the smallest of moments, like when my mom and I are disputing the score in Scrabble or when she is gleefully singing the words from a song from the musical “Jersey Boys” on the way home from her appointment with the oncologist.

And I have come to realize just how lucky I am to have had a mom who has given me infinite amounts of love for the last 27 years. I don’t know what the future holds in store, but I do know that we will fill every moment we can with life and laughter.


Viola is a 27-year-old, L.A.-based freelance writer whose work has been published in Angeleno, Westways, Zagat and additional outlets. She can be reached via e-mail at For additional information on pancreatic cancer, visit