Living with cancer: Woman reveals reality of life on borrowed time from sympathetic looks, pressure to make memories and constant pain  

  • Opinion
  • 14/11/2023

OPINION: I got out of bed today. I moved from the bed to the sofa. While I am sitting on the sofa, I can fold up the washing that needs to be folded. Putting the washing away is another thing.

I sit and say thanks for those who helped put the washing away for me. As the weather turns nasty, I can sit and knit the afternoon away while watching trivia on TV.  

Being able to move to the sofa may not seem like a big achievement, but yesterday, I struggled to leave my bed.  The effort to even go to the bathroom was difficult.   

I look at myself in the mirror and wonder who this woman is who is staring back at me.  She certainly doesn't look like what my younger healthier self thought I would look like at this age.  But then I didn't know I would be battling pancreatic cancer. 

Last week was my 69th session of chemotherapy. Six years of taking whatever toxins they give me to keep me alive. I often wonder to myself how I have done it. Two major operations, 69 sessions of chemotherapy and numerous hospital admissions. 

I remember when I first started chemo after the first failed operation to remove the tumour.  I carried on working which meant learning where all the public toilets are between my home and my office on Stanley Street were, as you never quite know when you're going to need one.

People often feel defined by their hair, and I have been asked many times whether I mind if I lose my hair.  Those clumps of handfuls of hair that I leave in the palm tree outside my bedroom window for the local tuis for their nests. 

I don't mind losing my hair.  It's when it starts to grow back that I hate it. That soft baby-like hair fuzz, that tight curl, that I didn't have before.  When even after washing, wetting, conditioning, moussing and spraying, it still has a life of its own, and no matter how hard I try to control it, I still look like Beetlejuice's grandmother. Then just as it is getting to a length I can work with, back comes the chemo and out it all falls again. 

When you hear of someone going through chemotherapy, you think you know the usual problems people encounter, the hair loss, the nausea, the vomiting the stomach cramps, the diarrhea.  But they are only the start of the chemo gifts.   

The looks and treatment from others can be one of the worst. I hate telling new people I have cancer because when I do, it is usually accompanied with "those" looks.  Firstly, the glance at my breasts and then the glazed look when I explain I don't have that cancer, that I have pancreatic cancer.   

Once people know that you have pancreatic cancer, you're treated differently, those who know even a little about it treat you with kid gloves and lots of sympathy. I often tell people that although I have pancreatic cancer I am here, and I am alive, and my time is not up yet.  But they don't believe me and when I am in the middle of a chemo week, I sometimes don't believe myself either.   

It is made even harder by the amazing, special people I meet on the journey who are also travelling this path and I have to say goodbye to them time and time again.  Being the one who is still walking this path, the passing of these wonderful people makes me so very aware of my own reality.   

Nyree Smith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017.
Nyree Smith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Photo credit: Newshub

When I was diagnosed there was only a 10 percent chance, I would survive five years from diagnosis. My doctors gave me nine months!  Well, they were wrong! 

But the reality is that my time might be short, that when treatments stop working my time will go fast and this reality surrounds everything I do. The knowledge that whatever I do, it may be for the last time, is always sitting like a weighted shawl draped around my shoulders. 

I travel to my favourite place in the Coromandel and each time I come home I wonder if it will be the last time.  Will I get to walk on my favourite beach again? Will I get to dig a hot pool and soak in it again? It should make the times I can do these things special, but that heavy shawl always takes the sunny edge away. I often talk about the need to make memories but in my dark times, I wonder why I bother as I won't be here to recall those memories.  

I go shopping and see a dress or a pair of shoes I would love, but don't buy them because I might not get the wear out of them. Then, I look in the wardrobe and I need those new shoes or a new dress (the old ones are way out of fashion), but again what's the point of buying new ones - will I get the wear out of them? 

I don't tell people of these thoughts, as again, that sympathy factor is so hard to see on their faces. I don't want sympathy. 

I want to carry on as well as I can, I want to ignore the neuropathy in my feet, where there is never a time (except when I am asleep) when there is no pain.  The heat that burns my feet and calves, where the skin on my feet peels as if sunburnt.   

The fear of telling anyone as when it gets too bad, they will take my driver's license from me.  Then it moves to my fingers and that pain in my fingertips feels like having needles stabbed into them.    

I have invested in numerous cotton gloves to help me around the house. Trying to hold a carrot from the fridge, holding a china cup from the cupboard, taking something from the fridge or freezer, or running the cold tap without the gloves is just not possible due to the pain.   

These are during the chemo week and the relief as it wears off on my good week is huge.  Except the feet never change.  The pain in my feet is weird, it is a tingling pain, not an ache and I find I trip a lot, either that or someone is digging holes in the floor for me to trip over.  Another great loss of shoes as I now can't wear heels due to the tripping. Thank goodness casual sneakers are now so trendy. 

Nyree Smith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017.  

Find details about Nyree's pancreatic cancer fundraiser here.