A woman who managed to beat the odds and live more than a decade after being diagnosed with one of the deadliest forms of cancer has now dedicated her life to raising awareness and finding a cure for the disease.
In 2006, Laurie MacCaskill visited her doctor after experiencing intense “electrical” pains in her back that started at the top of her head and spread throughout her body, often leaving her breathless and unable to get out of bed. Doctors initially blamed gas or a pulled muscle, but MacCaskill’s discomfort remained for weeks, and she unexpectantly lost weight. When the then 55-year-old returned to the doctor for an endoscopy after urging for more tests, they discovered she had Stage 3 pancreatic cancer.
“I was terrified, I was shocked, I was in complete disbelief,” MacCaskill, now 66, of Westwood, California, tells PEOPLE. “I never imagined cancer—I thought I had an infection, I kept asking for antibiotics. But that’s the problem with the disease, so many of the symptoms are similar to conditions that are less serious and it’s often misdiagnosed.”
More than 53,000 people a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and 43,000 are expected to die from it in 2017 alone, according to the American Cancer Society. Only 20 percent of patients survive a year after being diagnosed, and less than 10 percent of them live five years post-diagnosis. Symptoms—including intense back pain (such as MacCaskill experienced), loss of appetite, depression, fatigue, new-onset diabetes and jaundice—often don’t reveal themselves until after the cancer has reached an advanced stage. By the time the cancer was found, it had spread to MacCaskill’s duodenum and lymph nodes.
“When it grows, it is very silent and it is painless,” she says, “unlike other diseases where you have some indication something is happening.”
Shortly after her diagnosis, MacCaskill started an oral chemotherapy regimen but was rushed to the emergency room a month later when her bile duct began to crush her liver. During the surgery process, doctors recommended she go through with a dangerous and complicated pancreatic surgery called the “Whipple.” Fortunately, MacCaskill recovered, and was quickly put on an aggressive intravenous chemo drug she later switched after becoming allergic to it.
The next few years were filled with side effects and complications, and though she was resilient through it all, she was given heartbreaking news.
“At the end of about three-and-a-half years, I was told that the treatment was no longer effective,” she recalls. “I was told to put my affairs in order and I only had three to six months to live.”
But over that time, MacCaskill had trained herself to focus on the positives in her life, despite her dire situation. Though she couldn’t exercise, she did her best to spend time outdoors instead of laying in bed. MacCaskill even started a “gratitude journal” where she would write down three things a day that she appreciated and that she would have likely taken for granted before her diagnosis.
“In my old life, they were things I often overlooked, but now they took on a whole new significance,” she says. “I would look at it at the end of the week and revisit the memories. They really changed the lens in which I viewed my life and the future.”
Holding on to this optimistic mentality, she contacted a doctor out of state who started her on a new IV-administered chemotherapy drug (Rocephin) that required her to be hooked up for two hours morning and night for 30 days. Knowing there was a chance it could be ineffective, MacCaskill didn’t want to spend what could potentially be the finals days of her life cooped up in a hospital, so she learned how to administer the IV herself so she could continue to do what she loved. Today, thanks to the treatment, her cancer is in remission.
MacCaskill has now dedicated her life to spreading awareness and raising funding for medical research into the disease, and serves on the board of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, an organization dedicated to doubling pancreatic cancer patient survival rate by 2020.
“I want patients to know that there is hope, they don’t have to give up just because they’ve been diagnosed, there is a way to live with it,” she says. “We can’t do anything about the width or the length of our lives, but we can do something about its depth.”