Gina Cyza was training for the Market to Market relay race in 2014. The active and healthy 40-year-old had run several races in the past, but this time around she felt like she could just not get into the kind of shape she had been in before. She was feeling fatigued and went out for a 4 mile run that made her feel like she might pass out. Gina also experienced some mild abdominal pain and bloating. She thought perhaps she had a food allergy. Gina recalls, “I was not in terrible pain. It was just a nagging pain that would happen at night.”
At the end of September, 2014, Gina went to a gastroenterologist. At first, they could not figure out the reason for Gina’s symptoms. Her blood test results looked good, except for an abnormal liver function test. The GI doctor ordered an ultrasound and a CT scan of Gina’s abdomen. The testing revealed a mass on the tail of Gina’s pancreas and lesions on her liver. Gina was sent for an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) with a Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA). On October 2nd, 2014, Gina was told that she had Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer.
Gina, her husband Chris and their two daughters, ages 10 and 3, live in Nebraska. Gina, a kindergarten teacher, had always considered herself to be the picture of health. She was fit, active and had taken excellent care of herself.
When she first sought medical care, cancer was the furthest thing from her mind. Gina never once thought that there was something seriously wrong. Gina explains, “It was just so shocking at first. We were all in shock for the first month. “
Once Gina’s stage IV diagnosis was confirmed, she sought out the care of a Pancreatic Cancer specialist in her area. The doctor explained that the only treatment available currently for cases like Gina’s is aggressive chemotherapy. In October of 2014, Gina started treatment with the chemotherapy combination called FOLFIRINOX. Unfortunately, this chemotherapy regimen was very hard on her. She was so tired that she could not get out of bed. Gina’s hemoglobin dropped so low, she needed to have a blood transfusion. She felt like she could not function and live her life while on this therapy, so Gina and her doctor decided it would be best to try something a different treatment.
Gina is now receiving a combination of Gemzar and Abraxane. She receives chemotherapy once per week for three weeks and then has a week off to allow her body to recover. She has responded well to this chemotherapy and has found it to be much less difficult on her body. Gina has lost most of her hair, but says that she otherwise feels much better. Her weight is back in a healthy range and she has more energy than she had when she was on the FOLFIRINOX.
The biggest complication that Gina has experienced so far is the development of blood clots. Pancreatic Cancer itself can cause blood clots, and chemotherapy can further increase the risk. At one point, Gina was hospitalized with blood clots in both of her legs and lungs. She now takes daily medication to help prevent clots from forming in the future.
Though Gina is feeling better these days, she has had to take a leave of absence from her job as a teacher. This has been really difficult for Gina, who loves her job. “I really miss it”, Gina says. Her school has been very good to her through her leave, and Gina tries to stay connected to what is happening in her classroom.
Gina is fortunate to have the support of many people in her life. Gina’s husband Chris is an integral part of Gina’s support system. Chris maintains a positive outlook and takes good care of Gina. She appreciates how her husband has stepped up to the plate and taken over extra duties around the house so that Gina can rest. Gina says, “Chris is awesome and I could not make it through this without him!”
Another important person in Gina’s life is her mother, Mary. Mary retired from her job so that she could help Gina and her family out. Mary is at her daughter’s side for every doctor’s appointment and chemotherapy session. Gina, an only child, knows that her illness has been hard for her parents. She describes her parents as very strong people who are always there to lift her up. It is particularly hard for Mary when Gina needs to get a scan, but Mary always remains a positive force in Gina’s life. She tells Gina, “We are not going to worry about it. Get the scan, and then we will just take it from there.”
Gina feels that over these last months that she has been battling cancer, she has grown closer to all of the people in her life. Though her family has always been tight-knit, this experience has helped to strengthen their bonds. Gina’s network of friends has also been incredibly wonderful and supportive. She has been humbled by the number of letters and cards she has received from friends, co-workers, her students’ parents and other members of her community. Gina says, “People I have never even met send me cards. It is just crazy how amazingly kind people have been.”
Gina was told that her Pancreatic Cancer is inoperable, but she hopes that ultimately she will be able to have surgery. She hopes that new therapies will be coming up on the horizon. She says, “I am going to do my best to stay healthy and stick around until new treatments are available.” For now, Gina tries to stay positive about the future. She says, “I just stay positive. I can’t make plans too far in advance because I am never sure how I will feel. I have never had the “why me” thing going on. I figure, why not me? I don’t know why this happened to me, but it did, so I have to just deal with it. There is nothing I can do except stay positive.” Gina’s positive attitude and fighting spirit have been an inspiration to all who know her. Gina’s determination and love of life inspires all of us at Project Purple to continue to fight for a cure for Pancreatic Cancer.