In 2012, Christina Parrish founded a non-profit called the Purple Iris Foundation to raise awareness about pancreatic cancer and provide support for patients and families. Her underlying motivation was her own experience doing battle against a disease that rarely spares its victims.
“I had a lot of people help me on my journey, and I also needed help remembering and honoring the friends that I’ve lost,” she said. “I started planting purple irises and that’s how the Purple Iris Foundation came along. The purple iris means faith, hope, courage, wisdom, which represent all the things I gained, am still gaining, through cancer.”
If you go by statistics, Parrish should not be alive to tell her story, let alone start a foundation.
In 2008, at the age of 40, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. She had a 5 ½-centimeter mass inside her pancreas and the entire left lobe of her liver was filled with spots that she said resembled leaches. Surgery was not a possibility.
Only about 2 percent of people with her type of diagnosis make it to five years. As I write this, she is nearly at the 14-year mark.
“I thought it would be six months, but I had 3 1/2 years of active chemotherapy,” she said. “For four months, I did a really aggressive chemo, which delivered 40 times the usual dose. It was a clinical trial — intra-arterial therapy, which was like a heart catheter, but instead of going to the heart, it went to my pancreas and my liver.”
The odds were against her, but Parrish said she never gave up hope. Not once.
“I call myself a purveyor of hope because that’s what I do,” she said. “If somebody says they don’t believe in miracles, I’m like, well, you’re looking at one.”
Cancer of the pancreas is called a silent disease because people usually don’t recognize symptoms early on, or they can be misdiagnosed as something else. That’s what happened to Parrish.
For about five years before her diagnosis, she’d been having digestive problems and had even lost about 60 pounds. She was prescribed medications generally used for acid reflux, but nothing helped. She stopped going to the doctor and learned to live with it, but eventually, her symptoms got so bad that her back hurt and she had excruciating pain under her shoulder blades.
She was an athlete, so she thought it was probably a sports injury. One day, while doing Pilates, she noticed a lump protruding from under her ribcage, and then, about a month later she was unable to urinate or defecate.
“I just felt like I was dying, and I had to leave work. I drove myself home,” she said. “The next day, my doctor was like, ‘You’re never sick. Let’s do some scans.’ And four days later, I got the diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.”
To say that Parrish learned some hard lessons from her experience is an understatement.
First, if you have symptoms that don’t go away, seem unusual, or get worse you need to pay attention. It can be tricky with pancreatic cancer because there may not be any symptoms early on, but if you suspect something isn’t right, persist.
The pancreas lies behind the lower part of your stomach. It releases enzymes that help digest food and makes hormones that help manage blood sugar. Common symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:
– jaundice or yellowing of the skin or eyes;
– pain or dull ache in the upper abdomen, which sometimes radiates to the back;
– bloating or feeling full after not eating much;
– nausea or vomiting;
– weight loss and loss of appetite;
– feeling generally unwell; and
– elevated blood sugar.
Parrish had some of those symptoms early on, particularly weight loss, loss of appetite, and other digestive issues. Cancer was the last thing she and even her doctors suspected.
“Yes, most definitely, I had symptoms in some way, shape or form, but they all kind of hid themselves as normal things,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a Maine thing or simply a human thing but there are things that I think we just kind of put off as something else.”
By the time Parrish got her diagnosis, she was told there was nothing that could be done, which brings us to another important lesson she learned. Get a second opinion.
She got second and third opinions, which is what led her to the clinical trial that likely saved her life.
“What I’ve been through was like war, but I’m thankful to be here,” she said. “I now put my time into the Purple Iris Foundation, helping and talking to other people all over the world diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It has changed my life dramatically. I’m here for a reason, and I give as much as I can of myself to help others in their journeys.”