Milford woman is inspiration for battling and beating pancreatic cancer
Sharon Varga is an inspiration.
The Milford woman, 52, survived pancreatic cancer, and has since become sort of a poster child of hope. She and her family are organizing a pancreatic cancer research walk this weekend from Walnut Beach to Silver Sands Beach.
Sharon found out when she was 47 years old that she had pancreatic cancer, and she said it was really lucky that her doctors found it early. She was getting urinary tract infections, and her doctor sent her for a CT scan — strictly precautionary to see if maybe she had kidney stones — and the test came back showing a spot on her pancreas.
Even then, given her age and health, her doctor didn’t think she had cancer. He sent her to a gastroenterologist, and he even said, “I know you don’t have pancreatic cancer.”
The doctor said she had a cyst on her pancreas and planned to drain it. When he went in to drain it, he found that the cyst was a solid mass.
Sharon said she asked him, “Does that mean it’s cancer?”
“The doctor said, ‘Let me worry about it, not you,” Sharon recalled.
Four days later the doctor called her and said he wanted to talk to her in the hospital.
That’s when she got the bad news. “When you’re told you have cancer, it’s a punch in the gut,” she said.
Since there really aren’t any symptoms, in most cases pancreatic cancer isn’t discovered until stage three or four, and often that is too late. Sharon was lucky: Hers was caught in the beginning of stage two.
Maybe lucky isn’t the right word exactly.
She still gets emotional because what followed wasn’t a picnic. She had what is called a Whipple procedure, which means a surgeon removed her gallbladder, two-thirds of her stomach, half her pancreas and part of her small intestine. She was in the hospital eight days — in a medically induced coma for two days. She actually emerged from the coma a day earlier than was expected.
When she got to go home, she was on a feeding tube for 10 days.
Twelve weeks of chemotherapy followed.
“I learned that it’s the biggest and most dangerous surgery you can have,” Sharon said. “But they had told me that since I was so young, I’d be okay.”
But Sharon knew the scary statistics: There’s only a 4% survival rate.
The toughest part, she said, was telling her kids, Mike, 25 and Dan, 23.
But she did, and they dealt with it.
Today, she’s healthy.
“I knew I was going to be okay after my three year mark,” Sharon said. “Pancreatic cancer can come back within three years.”
Sharon said she doesn’t always have a lot of energy these days, so there’s that to contend with. But friends point out that she looks great. She lost 68 pounds, which is more than doctors predicted she would lose during the procedure.
She wears a purple ribbon pendant on a chain around her neck, and she pointed out that things definitely change after such a life-altering experience.
“You appreciate life more,” she said. “You don’t sweat the small stuff.”
Her sons and her husband Steve are part of the team that put together this weekend’s fundraising walk.
The walk is Saturday, May 18, starting at Walnut beach. Registration is at 9 a.m., opening ceremonies at 9:45 a.m. and the walk to Silver Sands along the boardwalk will start at 10 a.m.
Pre-registration is $50, and $60 at the event.
So far more than 70 people have signed up, and pledges are at about $12,000.
The fund-raiser is organized through the Lustgarten Foundation for pancreatic cancer research. Marc Lustgarten was a top executive with Cablevision. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1999.
Sharon said all money raised will go to the foundation to fund research.
Local businesses have made donations, including raffle items, and Bayview Balloon will build a huge balloon arch for that day.
The Varga family hopes to make the fund-raiser an annual event. For information call 203-874-4903, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Register online at lustgarten.org.