Editor’s note: Lupe Romero passed away in February 2019, but her legacy lives on. We share her story here in hopes that it inspires others to continue to Demand Better in the fight against pancreatic cancer.
I was always excited about my birthday, but when I turned 50 on January 11, 2012, I must have had a premonition of what was to come. I hadn’t been feeling well for several months but I just thought that I was on my fifth round of the flu. I also experienced severe lower back pain, which I attributed to my years of running marathons. I experienced itchiness all over and dark brown urination, which I thought was due to food poisoning. But when it felt like someone had punched me in my kidneys, I decided to go to my family doctor. She did a physical exam and ordered some lab work. Since my lab work came back abnormal, I was admitted to the hospital with the initial diagnosis of gallstones. An ERCP was scheduled for the next day to remove the stone.
The next morning the admitting physician came to my room to explain the procedure. In the interim, I had had a CT scan. As he was explaining the procedure he pulled up my CT scan results. He then said, “Uh oh.” I said, “What do you mean by uh oh?” He said, “You have a mass on the head of your pancreas.” I knew this was not good, so I immediately called my family. My whole family rushed to the hospital. I also posted a quote on Facebook that I kept on my desk; it read, “Look back and thank God, look forward and trust God, look around and serve God, look within and find God.” I had the ERCP and after the procedure my husband and my three sons were pulled into a room and were given the news that indeed it was pancreatic cancer. They were also given the facts about this horrible cancer and were told that I most likely had six months to one year to live. They were devastated.
The next day a surgeon came into my hospital room and said he had great news. He said that since the cancer was only one centimeter in size and at the head of the pancreas, and since I was in good health, that I was a great candidate for the Whipple procedure, which is pretty much the only chance for a cure for pancreatic cancer. We were given a 90% chance that the cancer would be removed. My whole family was very excited. My husband and I were concerned about the other 10%, so we didn’t want to get too excited. I went in for the Whipple procedure on February 14, 2012. The surgery was terminated sooner than expected, at which time, again, my husband and my sons were pulled into a small room. The surgeon said he was very sorry, that he had done all he could, but that the cancer had attached itself to the mesenteric vein so he was not able to remove the tumor and there was nothing more that could be done. My whole family was devastated for a second time.
A couple weeks later my oncologist told us about a combination chemotherapy regimen, that had been around for a year but he felt this would be a great thing to try. I agreed. Unfortunately, this decision was voted down by the tumor board because they felt this would not give me good quality of my remaining short life. Fortunately a few months later a radiologist who I work with told me that the hospital we both work at, and also where I was being treated, is a great trauma hospital but is not a cancer center. He explained the importance of going to a hospital with a specific cancer center. I then went to a hospital with a cancer center that treats a large volume of patients with pancreatic cancer and the fight for my survival started.
I had a total of nine months of chemotherapy, three of which was a combination chemotherapy regimen. I was told I was going to be knocked off my feet and that all of my hair would fall out in one week. But thankfully, I tolerated the chemotherapy fairly well and my hair thinned out, but I did not lose it. I returned to work five months after my attempted surgery. I am a runner, but I was not able to run; however, I did walk 3-4 miles and hiked almost daily. I even went skydiving in November. I never questioned why this happened to me and I never felt sorry for myself. My faith remained strong. I had great support from my family and friends and people that I didn’t even know.
On January 10th I was given the news that the tumor had shrunk significantly and that it had shrunk away from the vein. My surgery was scheduled on January 19, 2013, and it was a success! Two months later I completed the last mile of the Los Angeles Marathon with Julie Weiss, the amazing Marathon Goddess. I am now back to my life. I take karate once a week and run a few times a week. My goal is to complete my 11th Los Angeles Marathon in March 2014. Not one day goes by that I don’t get emotional and thank God for my life. I know things could have been different. I am truly blessed.