Eric Yetman’s mother, Carmen, is going skydiving for her 75th birthday – a gift to herself.
Editor’s Note: In November, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, we’ll be discussing testing—biomarkers and genetic testing—as part of our focus on “Talk. Key. Take control. Three simple steps that could save your life.” Today, PanCAN donor Eric Yetman shares his story about his mother’s commitment to genetic testing after her pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
I remember in elementary school I had an assignment to write an essay about your hero. It was an easy task for me: I idolized my father and wanted to be just like him when I grew up. Now that I am an adult, if I were given that assignment, I would find it just as easy to write about my mother. Not that I love my father any less — not at all. Now that I am older, I appreciate all the sacrifices my mother has made over the years to make the lives of her children better.
Here is the story of one of those sacrifices.
In late 2019/early 2020 (pre-COVID), my mother was having trouble controlling her blood sugar. She had been to a nutritionist to work on her diet and went to an endocrinologist in hopes of getting the situation under control. During this time, she was also in the process of finding a new primary care provider. Then the COVID shutdown hit. By the spring of 2020 she was taking regular blood sugar readings, the doctors were adjusting her meds and we thought she was making progress and she was getting the blood sugar problem under control.
In early September 2020, I had to take my mother to an imaging appointment. During a telehealth visit, she had been diagnosed with GERD (gastro-oesophageal reflux disease) and was thought to be the result of diabetes medications and adjustments made earlier in the year. However, just to be safe, the physician assistant ordered a scan to rule out other problems.
I will never forget the worried look on my mother’s face when she came out of the examination room. She told me she saw the imaging tech write something on her chart and when she asked what the problem was, the tech replied, “The doctor will call you with the results.”
When we got back to her house, there was a message waiting that she was scheduled for a CT scan the next day. In that moment she knew.
She turned to me and said, “I have pancreatic cancer.”
My mother’s older sister died of pancreatic cancer in 1998.
After the CT scan the next day, everything seemed to be moving quickly. I took her to several doctor’s appointments over the next few weeks, and on October 19, 2020, we received the dreaded confirmation of pancreatic cancer.
When we met the oncologist, Mom explained her family history and made it clear that she wanted a genetic test done for the sake of her children and grandchildren. The oncologist made an appointment to have blood drawn later that week.
Having a first-degree relative (a parent, child, or sibling) with pancreatic cancer can increase familial risk. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends genetic testing, which involves taking a sample of blood or saliva, if the person in the family with pancreatic cancer has been found to have a genetic mutation, has not had any tests, or if family members are unsure if the results were positive for a genetic link.
The blood was drawn and we patiently waited for the results. In the meantime, she made one chemo appointment before being hospitalized for nearly three weeks. During that time, she was not allowed to receive visitors due to COVID restrictions. When she was discharged and placed in a home hospice, my wife and I moved in with her to care for her.
My sister and her family came on Thanksgiving and we made the most of it. While Mom didn’t enjoy the spread my sister was handing out, she enjoyed spending time with her three grandsons. Later that evening, when things calmed down, I jumped on the computer and began searching through the data posted to her MyChart.
While looking through her map, I came across something from the lab regarding her genetic test. It said, “A peripheral blood sample has been sent to” [lab] for analysis. [The lab] followed by [the oncologist] to obtain the necessary patient data. Testing was canceled because the information was not received after repeated attempts. If the test is still desired, a new draw will be necessary.”
I had been trying for a while to convince my mother to go to a comprehensive cancer treatment center in western New York between September and before her hospital stay in November. But not wanting to burden me with making the trip, she quietly declined my repeated offers.
After reading the lab report, she grabbed my arm, looked me straight in the eye, and demanded that she make an appointment there.
I spent the next few days calling and emailing and was able to get her in on December 7th. That morning we loaded into the car and made the trip to Buffalo. Mom slept all the way there, and through most of the admissions process. When we checked into the clinic, they took her vital signs. It didn’t look good.
The doctor we had the appointment with took me aside in the hallway and told me he was surprised she could make the trip. He warned me that she probably wouldn’t make the trip home. He asked me, soberly, what we hoped to achieve with this visit.
I explained the family history and recent attempted genetic testing and asked what they could do. Within an hour, blood was drawn and a geneticist had called.
Mom was admitted that morning and the doctor was right, she wasn’t going to make the trip home. She passed away peacefully around 10pm
A few weeks later, the geneticist called me with the results. She explained well what was being tested and what the limitations of testing are.
The summary of the tests reads: “NEGATIVE: No clinically significant variants found.”
Complete the family history worksheet to better understand your family history of cancer and use it to talk to your doctor or genetic counselor about whether testing is right for you.
I shared the news with my sister and I felt her relief over the phone. Seeing what my aunt’s family went through in 1998 and our own experience with pancreatic cancer, I take comfort in knowing the results of my mother’s genetic test.
For the many personal sacrifices she has made, and especially the drive to draw blood for a genetic test, I am proud to call my mother my hero.