In 2014, Tara Petta’s worst fears came true when she was diagnosed with cancer. To make matters even worse, it happened to be the most deadly form of cancer: pancreatic. “Getting cancer was always a huge fear of mine,” Tara Petta says. “If someone was complaining about something, I would tell them ‘Put it into perspective. At least you don’t have cancer’. I was so afraid of cancer.” She thinks for a moment and then adds, “I was so afraid of getting cancer and now I am proud to have survived it.”
When 44-year-old NASDAQ Manager Tara Petta received her pancreatic cancer diagnosis, it was a huge surprise to everyone. In fact, her doctor told her she did not ‘fit the profile’ of a typical patient. Tara, a busy mother of four children, considered herself extremely healthy. In fact, with such a full life, she barely gave her health a second thought, often putting herself on the back-burner. When Tara first experienced lower back pain, she wrote it off to the fact that she had four kids and was just getting older.
In 2013, a sharp pain in Tara’s left side forced her to seek medical care. She had an ultrasound which yielded no answers. A year later, she was still in pain, so her doctor ordered a CT scan. Tara learned the test showed ‘something’ in her pancreas, but this answer was intentionally vague. She wondered if she had a cyst, but she did not consider a possible cancer diagnosis.
Tara’s Shocking Diagnosis
A follow-up MRI revealed a mass the size of a small orange on the tail of her pancreas. “When I went in for the MRI,” Tara recalls, “The paperwork said ‘mass on pancreas’. Seeing that word really affected me. After the CT scan I was thinking maybe it was a shadow or a cyst, but then I realized this is a tumor!”
Tara googled ‘mass on pancreas’ when she got home. Every result related to pancreatic cancer. Soon, she received a call from her doctor, who wanted to see her right away. When the doctor mentioned an oncologist, Tara remembers, “I felt like I was outside of my body.” Though she did not have an appointment, she went to see her doctor right away. She says, “It was just shocking. You can’t really digest what they are telling you.” Tara was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September, 2014.
Following her diagnosis, Tara faced a whirlwind of appointments and tests. Two difficulties during this time stand out in her mind. One of the hardest moments was telling her mom she had pancreatic cancer. She hated causing her mother emotional pain. Tara also found the waiting between testing and treatment challenging. Fortunately she only had to wait one month after her diagnosis to begin treatments.
Initially, her oncologist believed she had stage II pancreatic cancer. He ordered chemotherapy to try to shrink the tumor before attempting surgery. The oncologist recommended Tara have 12 chemotherapy treatments, but after the first seven, testing showed the tumor had not shrunk at all. Because the chemo was not shrinking the tumor, her medical team decided to attempt surgical removal. Tara had a distal pancreatectomy in January, 2015.
The surgeon removed the tail of Tara’s pancreas along with her spleen. She was pleased to find out that her doctor downgraded from Stage II to Stage IB. Her medical team felt positive about her prognosis as they determined her cancer had likely not spread. Following surgery, Tara spent five days in the hospital. At first she was in a lot of pain and was unable to eat. However, with relative youth and good health on her side, she recovered quickly in the weeks that followed.
Following surgery, Tara finished the final five chemotherapy treatments which had initially been recommended. On the Tuesdays she received chemo, she was at the infusion center from 9 am until 5 pm. She would then go home with a portable pump that she wore for two days. Fortunately, Tara found her chemo treatments tolerable. “It was not as bad as I thought it would be. I was very weak the day of chemo and could barely walk. Then the weekend after treatment, I was very tired and spent a lot of time resting,” she explains.
Life During Cancer Treatments
It was extremely important to Tara to keep her life as normal as possible while she battled her cancer. She took medical leave following her surgery, but opted to work through her chemotherapy treatments. Fortunately, she was able to work from home as needed. She says, “My boss was very understanding. It was very important for me to keep a routine. It helped keep my mind off of the cancer.” In addition, she kept her children’s lives and routines as normal as possible. She did not want to frighten her children, so she did her best to make the impact on their lives minimal.
LIFE AFTER CANCER
Tara now has follow-up CT scans every six months and she remains happily cancer-free. Though going through pancreatic cancer treatments was challenging, she learned something from the experience. “I am a Type A personality and am a big planner. Now I really do try to appreciate each day for what it is. I live in the moment more than I ever did before. That is a big thing because if you are living in the future, you aren’t living in the present. I am more appreciative of what I have instead of focusing on what I am lacking.”
Tara wants people to know that while a pancreatic cancer diagnosis is frightening, it does not always end in death. “It is important for people to know you can survive it. When I heard the diagnosis, I was planning my demise. However, when you get a cancer diagnosis, it is not necessarily the end. I was always so fearful of getting cancer because I assumed it was a death sentence. I want people to know there is hope.”