Linda Tarsa

Mike and I moved to England in August 2015.  We were excited about living in Great Britian and working with the British Army.  Major General Patrick Sanders and his wife Fiona were wonderful hosts and we enjoyed being a part of the 3rd Division (UK).  We lived in a beautiful home built before World War II that was about a mile and a half from Stonehenge.  We walked our dog, Murphy, through the sheep fields every day.  He loved his huge English Garden and would run laps around the house or chase the bunnies under the bushes.  Life was good.

In late October right before our belongings arrived, I started to itch.  It was constant.  I thought it may be from walking the sheep fields everyday, the hard water from the old pipes in our home, British soaps and shampoo, or even the laundry soap.  Nothing seemed to stop the itching and I had no other symptoms other than itching all of the time.   I called the TRICARE office in London and figured out how to make a doctor's appointment and also seek a referral.  On December 7th, I decided that I should see a doctor.  Mike was returning from another field exercise in Cornwall.  He arrived home in time for us to drive to the General Practioner (GP) together.  I was not feeling very well and the GP thought I may have jaundice.  She took some blood which Mike and I dropped off at the NHS hospital a few miles away.  The next day I returned to the GP's office and was told that I may have some issues with my liver based on my blood work.  I was able to get an appointment with a Gastrointestinal specialist in Southampton which was about an hour away with traffic.  

Dr. Wright thought it may be gallstones and ordered an Ultrasound.  The ultrasound identified several gallstones causing a blockage in my bile duct which caused bile to go everywhere.  This is what was making me itch all over all day long.  He scheduled an endoscopy for the following week.  I arrived at the Salisbury hospital for the procedure.  Once out of the recovery room, Dr. Wright sat down with Mike and I and told us that he was able to eliminate the gallstones.  He also said that he found a "mass" outside my pancreas and took a biopsy.  The "mass" was a malignant tumor and I was dagnosed with Ampulla of Vater cancer.  I never heard of this cancer and a quick Google search said that it was very rare.  We sat down with Dr. Wright to discuss the cancer and possible options.  He drew us a diagram of a stomach to show us where the tumor was located.  He also said that my getting this cancer was "bad luck."  Mike and I ate a healthy diet, only drank socially, exercised, drank water.  We lived a healthy lifestyle.  Dr. Wright mentioned that they could do a Whipple surgery.  The Whipple is a procedure in which they take out your gall bladder, and part of your pancreas, stomach, and intestine.  I was asked to come back for a CT scan so that they could plan the Whipple surgery.  The CT scan revealed  activity in my liver.  An MRI confirmed several masses in my liver.  On 29 December, I had a laparoscopy to biopsy the liver mass.  The biopsy confirmed that the mass was malignant.  In three weeks, I went from having an annoying itch to stage 4 Ampulla of Vater cancer.  It all seemed unreal.

David and Jess arrived in England for the Christmas holiday.  I planned an awesome holiday taking us to Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Dublin.  We had not told them about the cancer diagnosis because we wanted to tell them in person.  This was one of the toughest thingswe have ever had to do.  I love them so much and didn't want to cause either of them any pain.  We decided to make memories and go on our holiday.  It was one of the best trips I've ever been.  We went on some great tours, explored castles, shopped at the Christmas markets, and enjoyed our time together as a family.  It was wonderful.  We could not travel to Dublin because of the laparoscopy.

Mike and I decided we'd live our new normal in accordance with Romans 12:12.  Be joyful in hope.  Patient in affliction.  Faithful in prayer.   

We met with my oncologist,  Dr. Tim Iveson.  I was in great shape before diagnosis so the plan was folfirinox chemotherapy.   It was a very toxic combination of drugs that I would endure every other week.  The folfirinox kicked my butt.  I was so tired I couldn't exercise.  I had a disgusting taste in my mouth so I didn't want to eat.  I was sensitive to both hot and cold elements.  My hair was falling out.  I slept all of the time.  Luckily, Murphy sensed my pain and snuggled right up to me allowing me to rest.  

I had bloodwork done each week of chemo to ensure my body was strong enough for another round of the drugs.  After each session, my tumor markers were taken.  I started with a CA 19-9 of 91 in early January.  By late February, this marker was over 1800.  The folfirinox was not working.   A CT scan showed that the cancer in my liver had gotten worse.  Dr. Iveson changed the chemotherapy drug plan to Gemabraxine.  I would go to chemo for three straight weeks then have a week off.   After three sessions I would have a CT scan to see if the drugs were working.  

On February 29th, we met with Dr. Iveson.  I remember the date.  Mike asked him my prognosis.  The response was "12 months."  I had 12 months to live; my expiration date.  It took a few days to regain my strength.  I could see the hurt in Mike's face.  Our plan was to grow old together.  It just seemed unreal.  Three months earlier we were celebrating my birthday in Cornwall.  So much had changed.  We had some pretty frank discussions.  I told him I wanted to go home.  The Army Chief of Staff, Gen Milley, brought us home in late April.  There was a house open at Fort Myer that we could move into and we would continue treatment at Walter Reed.

There is not much to research on Ampulla of Vater cancer since it is so rare.  There isn't even a prescribed treatment plan for this cancer.  Doctors either use the drug combination for pancreatic or bile duct cancer.  I've read about each of these cancers.  I've read about what to eat to fight this horrific disease.  I'm going to be positive, make memories and stay true to my faith.  

I did test positive for the BRCA2 gene mutation which may lead to cancer of the breast, prostate, skin, ovaries, and/or pancreas.  It somehow helps knowing my lifestyle did not "lead" to this cancer, but rather my genetics.  Not all cancer is avoidable.  Sometimes you just have bad luck.  I just hope I did not pass this gene to David and Jessica.

We have received many cards and gifts since my diagnosis and appreciate each and every one of them.  We also appreciate all of your thoughts and prayers.  You have helped us more than you know.   Thank you.

"If He brings you to it He will bring you through it."

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