The mission of The Purple Iris Foundation is to raise awareness, provide support, and give hope to individuals and families affected by cancer, in Maine.
Chris Parrish - Pancreatic Cancer Survivor
and Founder Purple Iris Foundation.
Chris Parrish founded The Purple Iris Foundation as a result of what was then her 18 month journey through pancreatic cancer. She was given the life-changing news on June 16, 2008. Needless to say, she initially reacted with shock and then was told that she had only 3-6 months to live with treatment. She was appalled and decided then that no one in her lifetime should be given this news – thus The Purple Iris Foundation was born to help raise awareness and support her fellow patients. Christina is proud to say that she is a 8-year survivor. Christina is living proof that there is hope.
Chris's Cancer Journey
I don’t consider myself special or anything like that. I just do what I have to do to live. And that’s exactly why I when I was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in June 2008, I came here to beat it.
How it all began…
I was working out four times a week and in great shape. I had always been on the go and eating whenever I could find time. Friends noticed that I had lost a lot of weight, but I just thought it was due to my active lifestyle. During this time, I was constantly having stomach problems. My doctors recommended over-the-counter drugs and thought nothing of it. For a month, I also had constant diarrhea. Again, my doctors found nothing wrong.
Then, one day during my workout, I was stretching out on a Pilates ball and I noticed a bump protruding under my left ribcage. I knew something was not right. I had also been very tired, having a hard time eating, and in general, not feeling good. I just hurt. I went to my internal medicine doctor and had a MRI and CT scan. Four days later, the physician assistant told me that I had a mass in my pancreas and lesions on my liver. Holding back tears, I asked if they could take them out. But she said they couldn’t. The physician assistant mentioned that I should see an oncologist, and that was the first indication that she was talking about cancer. She never even said the word “cancer.”
It then took me two weeks to get into an oncologist near my home outside of Bangor, Maine. In that time, I did so much research on pancreatic cancer. When I got to the oncologist’s office, I was told they would put me on a chemotherapy regimen I knew from research I had done had only a 2 percent survival rate. I went over a list of other treatments I had read about and asked if they offered them. They said “no” to most of the treatments. I asked why other hospitals could do these treatments and they couldn’t. They just said they had what they had.
My sister and I then went to a bigger hospital on the East Coast for a second opinion. They advised me to do what I was recommended at the hospital at home. It was a waste of time.
A few weeks passed by and then I remembered another place I had always seen commercials for, Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). I checked it out and made a phone call. I spoke with Karen Rivera, a lovely lady who is an Oncology Information Specialist at CTCA. She was an angel. She provided me with information about CTCA and the treatments they offer. CTCA had what I was looking for and I was interested. Unfortunately, because I had selected an insurance plan through work that had a lower level of coverage, I didn’t have the flexibility to treat out of network at CTCA. But my managers and the benefits team at the company I work for helped me select another insurance plan. It would allow me to come to CTCA for treatment, helping cover my treatment costs.
I called Karen back and we got the process rolling. Karen helped make travel arrangements for my mom and me to come to CTCA at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Illinois. So we flew to Chicago early that August. I’ll never forget, a limo picked us up at the airport. I had never been in a limo before, so that was cool. The driver took us to the hospital and as soon as my mom and I walked in the front doors, I knew this was the place I needed to be. That day, I met with my nurse navigator Roxanne and she explained how things would go for my evaluation and consultation. I first met with Dr. Glynis Vashi, who is an intake physician at the hospital. Then I started all of the testing—a bone scan, CT scan and PET/CT scan to make sure the diagnosis I received was accurate and that the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else. Next I met with all of the people who would provide me with supportive, or complementary, therapies. Then I met with my medical oncologist, Dr. Robert Levin. We discussed my treatment options. Everything was coming together the way I needed it to. My treatment plan was in place and I was ready to fight.
My treatment at CTCA
That weekend, after my evaluation and consultation, my mom and I stayed in town and participated in day trips to local attractions the hospital organized for patients and their families. We went on a boat ride and to the Bristol Renaissance Faire. That was the best thing because it really helped take our minds off what I was about to go through the next week —beginning my pancreatic cancer treatment.
I started my chemotherapy regimen, which included intravenous chemotherapy (FUDR chemotherapy and leucovorin), as well as intra-arterial chemotherapy (cisplatin and mitomycin) to both my liver and pancreas.
The intra-arterial chemotherapy, in particular, was intense. But, it knocked my tumor markers down dramatically. I went through four rounds of intra-arterial treatment. I experienced side effects, including nausea, low blood cell and platelet counts, and hair loss. I also needed to have blood transfusions. But progressively, I started getting better and feeling stronger.
For more than two years, I’d return to CTCA every month for five to six days at a time. I received chemotherapy intravenously and took advantage of all of the supportive therapies and services CTCA offered. I met with many of the members of my care team, including Dr. Levin. He and I have such a great rapport. He knows I’m in it to win it. And he is too.
My naturopath helped me cope with nausea and had me on vitamin D, multivitamins, green tea and fish oil because of their natural, cancer-fighting properties. Something else that helped me tremendously to reduce side effects was acupuncture, which CTCA also offered onsite. My acupuncturist Irina helped me deal with hot flashes/night sweats. Dr. Rosenberg, the chiropractor at the hospital, also realigned my spine. It was out of whack due to a sports injury. I also had massages with Gretchen. On the days when I’d have my massage and chiropractic adjustment, I felt so relaxed.
The spiritual support I received at the hospital helped renew my faith. And, my mind-body therapist Victoria was a Godsend to my mother and me. She’s somebody I felt comfortable talking to, and she helped me get through some really difficult times.
The first year of my treatment was really hard. In the second year, I felt as though my body regenerated itself. My energy level was great. Granted, it took me a couple of days to recoup after I received five days’ worth of chemo. And some months were better than others. But overall, I had pretty normal energy three weeks out of the month. I ate right and took the natural therapies my naturopath prescribed.
I did a ton of juicing. That’s how I got a lot of my fruits. I juiced apples, carrots, red grapes, pineapple, strawberries, blueberries and cantaloupe. It was fabulous! Once a day I did it. And when I was at the hospital, the culinary staff did it for me.
I had my first beer since I was diagnosed on the two-year anniversary of my fight. I couldn’t drink it for a while, and I didn’t want to. But two years is definitely a momentous thing. So two Guinnesses got cracked open. The next year it was three.
Not letting cancer control my life.
Since April 2010, I’ve been working part time at my job as a collections agent for a major bank, which I’ve worked for since 2006. It feels good to be a part of something again. Just to say, “I’m working,” feels like winning a battle. It’s nice to be back. My coworkers have been amazing through all of this, especially my boss Jess. They’re my guardian angels. They even saved my job for me.
I don’t carry my work home with me. I work for four hours a day, and then I go golfing, which has become my new passion. I even walk the golf course carrying my own bag. It’s empowering for me to be able to do that. And when I’m not golfing, I’m at the beach. I’m like a kid: I’m not indoors until the sun comes down. I don’t want to miss a thing. I work out and jog/walk about a half mile, when I feel up to it. A couple of times, I’ve even played basketball. It’s good for my body to do something different.
I’ve also started an initiative to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer called the Purple Iris Foundation. We’ve bought thousands of purple irises from the local garden club and planted them throughout the community. On Facebook, we have about 1,300 friends. It’s my dream. I’d like to get it to take off and raise money for people who have pancreatic cancer that can’t afford treatment.
Why I chose CTCA
I know I can beat this. No one else would really help me fight. But at CTCA, they’ve helped me to aggressively fight cancer and have a good quality of life.
My advice for anyone who is considering CTCA for treatment is to take that leap of faith. Your doctor at home isn’t the only person out there who might be able to help you. Follow your instincts and always ask a lot of questions. If you don’t like the answers you’re getting, go someplace where you do like the answers you’re getting. That’s why I went to CTCA. Because I refused to listen to anyone tell me I had six months to live. Don’t let anyone tell you how long you have to live—ever. Nobody knows that. It’s all up to you and the “guy upstairs.”
May 14, 2012
I am doing well. I have had nine months off from chemo...a chemo holiday. I go back every three months as of right now, but my big visit comes in July. That will make it one year since my last chemo treatment. I am excited, and cautiously optimistic about the upcoming scans. The past months have felt so surreal. My whole life revolved around cancer and now to have a reprieve...I am in awe of how far I have come. I am truly blessed to have a great team and family that have stood by me! Thank you.
I recently returned from visiting family in Indiana. It was so wonderful to see folks I have not seen in years! Last year, I went to Gettysburg. I just love history.
I continue to do a lot of outreach work with folks who have contacted me about my battle. It is mostly through the Internet/Facebook. I also take part in Relay for Life. I was their Honorary Chairperson 2 years ago and it is such an awe inspiring event! And, the Purple Iris Brigade is now up to more than 1,700 members.
I look forward to getting more involved in pancreatic cancer awareness and was recently made a Cancer Fighter Ambassador at CTCA! When I come back to CTCA, I make sure that I go around talking to folks and spread the hope and love I was, and am still, given each time I return. It feels so good to be able to pay it forward.