When you open up Brooke Dwars’ Instagram page, you are greeted with the smiling faces of her, her husband Ryan, and their two children in t-shirts and hoodies that are emblazoned with purple ribbon decals and various slogans like, ‘Not Today Cancer,’ or ‘My Fight is His Fight.’ The account works to chronicle her family’s day-to-day lives, lives that have changed drastically since 2021 when Ryan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Today, her account not only serves as a blog about their cancer journey, but also as a testament to the couple’s connection, and their commitment to raising awareness for this disease.
The Dwars Family Get Their Diagnosis
At 36, cancer was the farthest thing from the Dwars’ minds. They had just settled into a very comfortable life; they had two beautiful children, a house they loved, and their finances all in a row. A week before they were about to take a long-awaited family trip for spring break, Ryan began to feel a pain in his side. They had just finished loading the car when Brooke finally told Ryan that he needed to get checked out. She sent him to the ER to receive care while she stayed home with the kids. When Ryan was still at the hospital a few hours later, Brooke began to get agitated.
“It got to be about 9 o’clock and I’m like ‘what is going on, what are they doing,’ it’s indigestion or something fairly benign,” said Brooke, “And he finally texted me back and said, ‘I’m going in for a CT scan.’ I said ‘Okay well hurry up.’ And that was the thing that was like, oh my gosh, he’s going through this and I felt so bad because I was still thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal and I said hurry up, we’re leaving tomorrow at 6:30, we need to go to bed, I’m tired.”
The CT scan came back showing a mass on the tail of Ryan’s pancreas. Though they had to wait for a biopsy to be sure, the Dwarses were convinced it was pancreatic cancer. Ryan’s uncle was already battling with the disease, and knowing that pancreatic cancer can have a genetic component, he was certain he and his uncle had the same affliction. Ryan was officially diagnosed in March of 2021, a week after his trip to the ER. By the start of April, Ryan was able to start his first round of chemotherapy. The rapidity of Ryan’s diagnosis, along with his age, shook the family to its core.
“It was definitely a shock,” said Ryan, “My uncle at the time had pancreatic cancer; he had been diagnosed a few years before, so I knew about pancreatic cancer. But I did not expect that type of change from living life and everything being okay to this huge health factor that changed everything and changed these past few years.”
Brooke, though stunned, immediately went into planning mode, committing herself to being her husband’s champion as he battled this disease.
“It was like what do we need to do?” Brooke said, “Sometimes if you don’t slow down, sometimes it’s easier and you can continue going. I think especially, you hear pancreatic cancer and you can’t be stagnant. You have to move, you have to fight.”
Though the Dwarses have kept a positive outlook through Ryan’s treatments, there are aspects of the disease that have taken a toll on the couple.
Coping with Cancer
The Dwarses had a hard time adjusting to this new reality. Ryan describes the pressures that come with a cancer diagnosis, as many patients do, as the ‘weight’ of cancer. He will be the first to admit that his main pressures have centered around the rapid transition in the family’s lifestyle, from the doctors’ visits to the change to a more cancer-friendly diet.
“The weight is hard to describe,” said Ryan, “but it’s just the things that we have mentioned, the treatments, the different doctor appointments, it’s the time that you are having to devote of your life to do those things… and the uncertainty of what’s next, what happens after this.”
But, one of the most challenging aspects of the disease has been the changes in Ryan’s social life.
“There are just the social aspects of having cancer and talking and meeting other people that are in similar situations.” said Ryan, “Sometimes you feel like you’re the person who has cancer and everyone knows that, and that tends to be a topic of discussion, and maybe that isn’t something you necessarily want to discuss further.”
Brooke found herself struggling with the adjustment as well.
“Definitely the day-to-day,” Brooke said when asked about what she struggles with the most as a caregiver. “You have to acknowledge the cancer. You can’t really go a day without thinking, has he had enough water, is he eating okay today, what’s the next week looking like with doctors appointments.”
However, the Dwarses found some relief from the ‘weight’ through various methods, but what has helped the couple most is reaching out to the cancer community.
“There have been things that I have done to alleviate [the weight] through some journaling and meeting with survivors as well as talking with people who are going through cancer,” said Ryan, “not necessarily pancreatic cancer, but people of different ages, people who are even younger than me and people who are 60-70 years old and just talking about the similar struggles and the similar stresses.”
This need to reach out quickly transformed into a desire to participate in activist efforts within the cancer community. The couple has also participated in PanCan’s PurpleStride Iowa and Stand up for Cancer events, as well as the Richard H Peck Lustgarten Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk, which has become an annual tradition for the family.
They have worked with Project Purple several times in the past, even sharing their story on the Project Purple Podcast.
“For me, it really does help,” said Ryan about his activism, “as far as the pressures, advocacy has given all of this a little bit more purpose. It has helped me to see other survivors and to hear their stories and also to share my story. I also want to try to make pancreatic cancer a bigger deal to people that don’t know enough about it; the causes and the things that can improve because of it.”
Brooke also believes that it is important for her to remember that cancer does not define their life, even though they are passionate about the fight against it.
“My mom told me almost immediately, ‘Ryan has cancer but your life isn’t cancer, it’s not ruled by cancer.’ And I have taken it to heart,” said Brooke, “During Ryan’s first round battling I told him ‘When we get through this, we’re going to take a trip.’ I hadn’t traveled since our honeymoon. So I said, ‘We are going to do this, and we are going to live our lives, no matter what we have to do in the meantime, we will live.’”
Today, the Dwarses have learned to strike a balance between their activism and their personal lives.
Chemo Drugs Run Dry
Currently, the Dwarses are using their activism platform to speak out against the drug shortage in the United States, specifically when it comes to chemotherapy treatments. According to the New York Times, the shortage is due to several different issues along the supply chain that are delaying patients’ access to life-saving chemotherapy treatments.
It was in this same article that Ryan and Brooke shared their story with the world. When the drug shortage began to affect Ryan’s chemo treatments, the couple reached out to Angels for Change. According to the New York Times article, the charity works as a liaison between patients and health systems, and drug companies to obtain hard-to-find medications for their clients. The nonprofit was able to obtain the drugs needed for Ryan to continue treatment.
Since then, the couple has been featured on Good Morning America and has given interviews to several other news organizations to talk about this important story. They are committed to continuing the conversation about this situation as it unfolds.
Future of the Family
The Dwarses have now settled into a new routine and have found normalcy in a life that is anything but normal. Ryan is hopeful for the future, especially since he finished his last round of chemotherapy back in May.
“Personally, I hope to still be here 50 years from now, but also I would love to see advances in cancer, and pancreatic cancer specifically,” said Ryan, “in drugs and treatment options that we can advance, and the outlooks of cancer in general.”
He also has found peace with his diagnosis as well.
“While my life is forever changed due to my diagnosis, I am blessed to still be here,” said Ryan. “There are so many others who have lost their battle. I will continue to be as positive as possible and continue fighting.”
“I think I have gained knowledge of pancreatic cancer just in general,” said Ryan. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that it has taken anything away from me, it has just changed my outlook on what I thought life was going to look like for the next few years and the rest of my life, but I don’t think of anything in a negative way that has impacted me.”
Brooke also has found her stride with posting on Instagram and working with various charities. She is now hoping to impact the healthcare system as a whole in order to foster awareness.
“Until it happens to you, you have no idea,” said Brooke. “We were the same. I will be the first person to say that we know people who have battled other cancers, several young people, and while you reach out, it’s one of those things where you have no idea about the ins and the outs and the scan-xiety that people talk about until you are living it.”
She hopes that her efforts will inspire more people to join the fight against pancreatic cancer.
“I think for other people to know all the ins and outs, and know how it feels, living this day to day, may help them join the fight,” Brooke said as she talked about the importance of sharing their story. “You know, a lot of places put out, ‘these are the symptoms’ fliers, but the symptoms are so ambiguous that unless you advocate for yourself or your family member or have better earlier detection or another option for figuring things out, people will continue to lose their life and it’s wrong– it’s just wrong.”
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For more on Ryan and Brooke Dwars’ journey, check out their episode of the Project Purple Podcast on Spotify or SoundCloud below.