A quest for life: Christina Parrish is beating the lousy odds of pancreatic cancer

Posted March 16, 2011, at 6:19 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — Christina Parrish didn’t set out to be a role model, an inspiration or a hero. Much less a pioneer. Yet Parrish is beating the odds against a devastating diagnosis and says her life has assumed a sweetness and meaning she never anticipated.

In June of 2008, Parrish, now 43 years old, was diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer, possibly the most feared of all cancer diagnoses, with a notoriously poor prognosis. The tumor was inoperable and the cancer had already spread to her liver.

The National Institutes of Health are blunt about the outlook for people with this diagnosis: “For pancreatic cancer that cannot be removed completely with surgery, or cancer that has spread beyond the pancreas, a cure is not possible and the average survival is usually less than 1 year.”

Vague symptoms

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In the weeks leading up to her life-changing diagnosis, Parrish recalled, she was experiencing only vague symptoms. She was having some back pain. She developed mild but persistent digestive problems. She was tired a lot. Her body was telling her something wasn’t just right, but she wasn’t too worried about it.

A self-described workaholic, Parrish assumed it was all stress related. She maintained her 60-hour-a-week work schedule, offsetting her office routine with regular workouts at a local gym.

It was there at the gym one day that she felt the lump. It was the size of a golf ball, protruding from the left side of her torso between her armpit and her waist. It was firm, stationary, slightly tender to the touch. She decided to ignore it.

After all, she said, “I was in excellent shape.”

But within a week, things went downhill fast.

“My appetite went to nothing,” Parrish recalled in a recent interview in her Brewer home.  “I started feeling really, really sick.” She scheduled a rare appointment with her primary care physician.

Her doctor ordered up some tests — bloodwork, x-rays, a CT scan.

“Four days later, they told me I had a ‘mass’ in my pancreas, and ‘masses’ in my liver,” she said. “They never used the word ‘cancer.’ It was kind of surreal.”

‘I could not fathom it’

It took two weeks to be seen by a local oncologist, she said, who told her the standard treatment would be a punishing course of intravenous chemotherapy and radiation, aimed not at a cure but at shrinking the tumors and buying her some comfort and a little bit of time — maybe six months, given the late stage of her cancer.

“I was 40 years old and I was being given time to get my affairs in order,” Parrish said. “I could not fathom it.”

She sought a second opinion in Boston and was told to come back to Bangor and follow the advice of her oncologist.

She tried. But something in her refused to accept the grim prognosis she was being handed. She combed the Internet for more information. None of it was heartening. She adopted a macrobiotic diet and sought nutritional counseling to help maintain her strength and boost her immune system. And reluctantly, she scheduled the chemo treatments her local oncologist recommended.

And then she remembered the television ads. She and a friend used to stay up and watch late-night television and had often remarked on the ads from the Cancer Treatment Centers of America. The ads persuasively described near-miraculous recoveries using customized protocols of chemotherapy and radiation supported by complementary treatments such as nutrition therapy, naturopathy, acupuncture and “mind-body” therapies including counseling, Tai Chi and guided imagery.

The Cancer Treatment Centers of America is a for-profit corporation with hospitals in several metropolitan areas. The company has its critics, including those who feel its clinical approach is unscientific. In 1996, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America settled a Federal Trade Commission investigation for misleading advertising, and in 2001 the FTC reprimanded the company for conducting three clinical trials that were out of compliance with national guidelines.

Despite some misgivings, Parrish got on the phone. And within a week, she and her mother were on a plane to Chicago where one of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America hospitals is located. She underwent a week of testing, examination and interviewing and another week of intensive chemotherapy and other, gentler treatments.

“I was scared to death, but they treat you like family,” she said. “They didn’t make me any promises, but they didn’t put a time frame on my life, either. They said ‘This is what we can do, and we’ll work with you for as long as you want to fight.’”

Still fighting

Since her initial visit in 2008, Parrish has continued to travel once a month to Chicago for the care she says is saving her life. She stays a week each time and gets another blast of chemotherapy and other treatments. She has just completed her 30th round of chemotherapy. Her employer-based insurance pays for her care.

The tumor on her pancreas has shrunk from 5.5 centimeters to 1.1 centimeters, and the multiple lesions on her liver also have shrunk dramatically, she said. Her liver function is almost normal, and she has not developed diabetes, a common occurrence related to pancreatic cancer.

More important, Parrish looks and feels energetic and well — well enough to go back to work part time, to enjoy the days she spends with her friends and family, and to appreciate the honor of having been recently named the honorary chairwoman of the Relay for Life for Penobscot, an overnight cancer fundraiser that will take place May 20 and 21 at the University of Maine in Orono.

Going on three years is a long time to live with pancreatic cancer, and Parrish says she doesn’t take any of it for granted. She knows that for most people, the diagnosis is a life-ending one.

“They tell me I’m a pioneer, because most people aren’t around this long,” she said. “But I tell my doctor [in Chicago] that he’s the pioneer; I’m just the tool … if I can help someone else get through this, so people don’t have to lose their lives to this stupid disease, that’s what keeps me going.”

She is deeply aware that for many people without adequate health insurance, community support, and friends and family, pursuing an alternative to locally available care is simply not an option. She thinks this is morally wrong.

“You should be able to go wherever you want and do what you need to do in order to live,” she said. Although many patients receive excellent care in the Bangor area, and although patients must be wary of “quack-science” programs that promise a cure, she said it is important to search for a care team, a medical approach and a clinical  environment that feels right.

“For some reason, this place [Cancer Treatment Centers of America] has been a perfect fit for me,” she said.

The experience of living with pancreatic cancer  also has cultivated her patience, faith and optimism, Parrish said.

“I wake up every morning thanking God for another day,” she said. “Each day is uniquely different, and you do not get it back.”

Learn much more about Chris Parrish and the care she receives at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America online at http://www.cancercenter.com/patients/chris/

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