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Pancreatic Cancer Month: Kayla Walker wants to use lessons from her father's death to teach others

Pancreatic Cancer Month: Kayla Walker wants to use lessons from her father's death to teach others

Kayla Walker, a medical assistant at Mesa Primary Care, poses with her dad, Harold Walker. Harold died of pancreatic cancer in June, and Kayla wants others to learn about the disease

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.

Harold Walker teaches Kayla's daughter how to fish.

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.

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