November has been proclaimed as National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
Life has changed in the last three years for Kelly Van De Grift, who has been battling pancreatic cancer. However, her future is starting to look a little brighter now that she is on a healthier path, complete with a coach.
She helped her husband, Cary, battle his health woes, basically heart and kidney disease, for a number of years before his death on July 6, 2017.
Her diagnosis came on Dec. 6, 2018.
“It ended up Stage 2B. I believe that was from God,” she said. “It should not have been found. They called it an incidental finding.”
She went on, “I was sick, jaundiced and had abdominal pains. I thought it was because I was working two jobs (at local medical facilities). I thought the pain would go away. I had no gall bladder. I brushed it off. One or two days before I was admitted at Miami Valley, I went to the bathroom and my urine was a dark brown, so it probably meant liver or pancreas, I went to the hospital in Greenville to the day clinic. They did a urine check and it was so abnormal. I was very dehydrated. I got my labs that night. The lab tech came to see me to see if I was okay. She said I really needed to see a doctor.”
So, she did and Dr. Rick Bowlin performed an ultrasound the same day.
“My liver enzymes were very elevated too,” Van De Grift noted. “They sent me to the E.R. at Miami Valley. I was hallucinating. My kids got me to the hospital. I was turning yellow when my daughter Caroline was driving. I argued with myself ‘I don’t have time for this’.”
She said on Dec. 6, they took her for an MRI at 3 a.m. on her common bile (liver) duct and was scheduled for a procedure later in the morning.
“The nurse kept coming to my room and asked if the doctor had been in three or four times,” she said. “There was a worried look on her face. I never dreamed this. They told me it was a tumor. I have worked in the medical field for many years and you don’t find that cancer early. I was going to die. The kids just lost their dad a year before and now here I go. I never dreamed I would be here today. I’m clean right now. I don’t like to say remission.”
She said two of her aunts on her mother’s side died of pancreatic cancer.
“It’s linked to family history,” Van De Grift said. “I was in the hospital for two or three weeks. My oncologist, cancer surgeon and GI doctor came up with a plan.The tumor was located next to the abdominal aorta and they had to shrink it with radiation and chemo. If not I’d be dead right away. 5FU-chemo is the strongest they make. I had that for three to four months.”
Subsequently, they installed a port in her and sent her home on a pump for the chemo.
“For the first few months you could hear it pumping,” she recalled. “I told the elders at church it was comforting. It was odd that it was comforting knowing it was fighting for me.”
Events seemed to start going in Van De Grift’s favor.
“My oncologist, Dr. Kelly Miller, tells me now she walked in my room and knew she was to be my doctor,” she said. “The nurse there arranged for me to go to Dr. Oulette to be my next surgeon. I did chemo Dec. 26. I cried most of that morning. The girls played my fight song and said, ‘Let it go.’ Friends –Heather Kremer, Becky Faber and Jenny Smith, all from Wayne HealthCare — took care of me. And of course, Jill Brown facilitated many things and Vicky Henderson (now deceased) wanted me at the hospital, She came to see if it was shrinking. It did….a miracle.”
At one point, Van De Grift underwent the Whipple procedure which she described as open heart for the stomach. “They opened me up and moved everything around,” she explained. “I lost part of my stomach and intestines. I was in the hospital on a feeding tube for three weeks.”
She was then transferred to Rest Haven Nursing Home for three weeks.
“I got sick and went back Memorial Day weekend to the hospital with infection in my feeding tube,” she reported. “They discharged me home still with my feeding tube. My labs for nutrition were good. I didn’t do well with a feeding tube. I talked them into taking it out early. The nursing home wanted me to eat but I couldn’t because I wasn’t hungry.”
She now has been living in her home ever since.
“I underwent outpatient surgery for three hernias in the incision,” she said.
Being the sensitive mother that she is, her main concern was, “All I could think of is what a burden I am to my kids.”
She went on, “I never got to go back to work but rather retired from my long time place of employment. I lead a simple life but I’m at peace and thankful every day when I wake up. I’m so blessed.”
Is she on any restrictions?
“I drink a lot of water,” she said. “I don’t drive after night or on two-lane roads.”
Van De Grift added, “I’m alive and on my way to getting healthy and strong. I fall a lot because I’m more active from the chemo. My brain is slow to react and I have memory loss. I can deal with that now. My last checkup was at the end of September last year. I started going to the gym with my cousin, BJ Paulus of Snap Fitness, training me and I swim at the YMCA, thanks to a gift card.”
Otherwises, Van De Grift, who turned 64 on Sept. 23, said she spends a lot of time at home.
“The pandemic hit and I didn’t go anywhere,” she offered. “I slept.”
This new stage of her life is where her life coach came in.
“I began talking to her for quite a few months,” Van De Grift recalled. “She said if you need a massage, I’ll come to your house. I would like to come and talk to you. I think I can help you.”
And, that she did.
“Last March I finally said yes to Shelly Acker….yes, to getting myself on a healthier path….getting stronger as I recover from pancreatic cancer aftermath…yes to better sleep and yes to transforming my body as a bonus. Most days I cannot believe the changes in myself. Now I want to pay it forward because, if I can do this, so can others. If you want to take the oath to better health, I would love to help you. I’m still working on myself but look where I started to now….I think the transformation is amazing.”
“My dear friend, Kelly Shane-Van De Grift, has shown courage, a resilience and grit ever since I have known her more than 20 years,” Acker remarked. “After a journey with cancer, she decided to take another step forward in becoming the healthiest version of herself. And now she has chosen to help others do the same. Shine on Kelly and keep showing us the way.”
“Shelly is a big part of my journey,” Van De Grift said. “I have seen Shelly’s journey. With things, Shelly was there. I knew she’d be a good person to meet. To me, she’s only been kind and caring. You don’t get that from people. She helped me find my way. She was there encouraging me. I don’t mess up anymore. I used to have bobbles now I’ve graduated to unwise healthy decisions and I take responsibility for that. Don’t use yourself that way. We’re learning everyday through our lives.”
Acker helped Van De Grift through “Habits of Health.”
“It is a program of optimal health and wellness, body and mindset…her hydration and sleep, the total picture,” Acker said. “We had weekly phone calls. If you learn how to eat healthy it’s a knowledge of power and learning to be healthy. The secret is frequent small, nutritional meals.”
“It’s a gift every morning,” said Van De Grift, “I’ve lost 55 pounds since March and I have 20 more I want to lose. It’s not only about losing weight…that’s a small part of it. My regular labs are good and I have more energy. I don’t take naps anymore. I walk and now I’m cleaning my house out. Before, I thought I was healthy, but I was living a very sedentary life…averaging two hours of sleep everyday. Now I stay busy and am physically active. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned…how to change my life. I eat to live; not live to eat. That is so important. Food plays a big part of our lines.”
She said the sparkle is back in her eyes.
“I am feeling so strong and getting stronger. I swim and work out at the gym every week,” she added. “My oncologist was so pleased with my progress. I know I have a long way to go but I can see in my mind the future and my better self.”
Very recently she was thankful to go to the gym and actually work on the elliptical.
“Before there was absolutely no way I had strength and energy to even attempt it,” she said. “It’s a total transformation of mind and body and the weight loss was a bonus. I was size 22 before I was sick and now I wear large and some mediums.
Anybody can do this.”
Her advice to those with cancer?
“Keep fighting,” she replied.”Some stories have a completely different outcome. I wasn’t Stage 4. By finding mine early, it was a whole different outcome. But just fight back. I know I have survived for a reason but for the life of me I can’t figure this one out.”
Her children are Katie Fields, Rebecca Burns and Caroline Kelly. Sam and Lucie, Katie’s children, are Van De Grift’s grandchildren. They are her reasons to stay healthy on this journey called life.