Saturday, August 22, 2015

Living a Full Life With Pancreatitis

On March 26, 2008, I was diagnosed with acute severe pancreatitis. Over the years, I've kept a blog so that I can share my experience with others who suffer from pancreatic issues.
The first year was a depressing struggle just to stay alive and to try to learn what food increased the pain levels. Of course, I was quite bad at it initially and often found myself unable to eat for weeks or a couple months at a time simply due to the unbearable pain.
I didn't take morphine or any other pain relievers. Doctors give people morphine who suffer from pancreatic problems because they assume you're basically DOA (dead on arrival) anyway so you might as well not suffer. Over-the-counter pain killers are hard on the liver and would make mine swell.
The problem with pain killers is that they mask the pain. If you don't mask the pain and you're forced to feel it especially with something as painful as pancreatitis then you will no longer want to eat to the point of bothering your stomach. This is a huge deal in healing the pancreas especially during the early stages of recovery. Of course during the attacks and soon thereafter eating and often even drinking anything just aren't really viable options. Although I have gone through times when I could handle tea, broth an either a few potato chips or maybe a little piece of bread.

Generally, the pain comes about an hour after eating. Sometimes anything, even just liquid can make the stomach swell and create pain. I began to learn which foods my system could handle and which they couldn't. I was told by the doctor not to have anything spicy. But the reality is that some spices are anti-inflammatory which means that they decrease the swelling which can help the discomfort of a bloated or swollen stomach. Spices from the turmeric family (such as turmeric, cumin, paprika) are anti-inflammatory... So is ginger! I'm hard headed so it took me a while to start eating fat-free foods - that includes milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, half-and-half. That was tough for me. I also learned how to eat 7% lean meat which I can purchase at Publix. Whole Foods has 95% lean meat... sometimes. Buffalo is easy on the digestive system as well. Now, please remember that I have been recovering from my attack for over 7 years now so please don't think that just because I am able to eat it that your pancreas is ready for food like that the day you get out of the hospital. Also remember that each person's situation and biological structure is different and each needs to be respected as such. Basically, that means that what works for one person might not work for another and we each will need to pay attention to our own body and learn what works for us and what doesn't. JalapeƱos and green peppers are the kind of spicy that my stomach cannot handle.
I didn't stop having pain on a regular basis until my fifth year after diagnosis.
I wanted to write this blog so you (or your family member(s) who is doing this research into your symptoms... and probably a little panicked even a bit terrified) knows that there is the possibility of getting past it.
Just so you know... I really don't live in pain anymore. It has been over two years since my last pancreatic attack. A lot of my healing has come from learning which foods my pancreas can and cannot handle, exercise and decreasing stress levels.
When I was diagnosed it seemed like everything I read about pancreatic damage said that the damage was irreversible and often what I read discussed enduring or covering the pain rather than healing the pancreas. I'd rather heal than suffer or endure pain and that has always been the approach I've taken in my recovery.
I believe I allowed the pancreas to heal over time by not covering or masking the pain but rather by eating small and limited amounts of foods my pancreas could tolerate. In the hospital where I stayed for 16 days, my food intake was initially non-existent since I was off all food and all water and hooked to an IV for nutrients. Eventually I began eating a couple potato chips or a slice of bread or something simple like that. And over a long period of time I gradually increased my food intake as appropriate. For some family members the decrease in weight can be startling or unsettling but the reality is that increasing eating can harm the pancreas rather than heal it. My attitude is that skinny is better than dead. So don't worry about the weight. When the pancreas can handle the additional food intake the person will start eating more. Trying to make a person eat before their pancreas can handle it will only delay healing and increase the risk of scarring, additional damage to the pancreas and even more time before the person is ready (more like capable) of eating more.
I also found that stressing out the adrenal gland could (would and did!) end me up in the emergency hospital. So, I learned to manage stress levels which can help to keep me from getting pancreatic attacks. My thinking was simple - "Is that person pissing me off so much that I am willing to die over it?" Of course not. So when something bothers me I try to keep it in perspective. I'm not perfect. People, places and things still bother me. I just try not to let it affect my adrenal gland because when it does, I notice.
I also learn to respect walking much more than before although I have always enjoyed a good walk. Now I understand that walking was a safeguard to protecting my pancreas and the health of all the organs in my abdomen. Plus, the healthier I am overall the stronger I am and the more likely I'll avoid an attack.
I read that pancreatic cancer comes from reoccurring damage to the pancreas. So, I work diligently to protect and heal my pancreas rather than succumb to its damage and assume death and discomfort.
In the first year or two it can be very difficult to keep your spirits high. At least that was often my experience throughout that timeframe. The pain can be debilitating for months on end with hardly ever a pain-free day which can make a person feel feeble. Maybe that isn't or wasn't your experience but it certainly was mine. I want you to know that the feeling can pass and that you can get better.
I wrote an article about tanning. I did tan for a little while. I'm lucky enough to have lived long enough that those two summers (during years 3 and 4 after my pancreatic attack) have done horrible damage to my arms. I don't recommend a convertible in really sunny places...duh! So, for now, I'm still growing older. Sun damage is the gift of still being alive.
It's been over two years since my last pancreatic attack and over 7 years since my first attack. I am very grateful and I truly hope that sharing this information helps you and or the one you love on your road to recovery.
I was told on my first day in the hospital that I would never be able to drink again. I have not had a drink since then. I wanted my life and I didn't want a drink to kill me.
Be kind to yourself.
Note: To be clear, I am not in the medical profession and this blog and this post is based on my experience and opinions as someone who has suffered from pancreatitis.