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For four weeks, he dismissed stomach pains as the result of bad food or possibly a stomach bug he could’ve contracted from his young daughters.
After all, he’d just undergone a routine blood test and doctors saw no irregularities.
And when his wife, Michelle, urged him to go see the doctor because his skin was turning yellow and he had lost weight, athletically-built Craig Merimee passed it off as bad lighting and fatigue from the self-diagnosed stomach bug.
But when he looked in the mirror and bloodshot eyes stared back at him, Merimee called his doctor, who quickly urged him to go to the emergency room.
Two hours later, Merimee was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The CT scans showed a tumor the size of a golf ball and lesions on his liver.
Despite the diagnosis, Merimee, who has seen family and friends successfully battle cancer, first thought, “I can do this. We can fight this cancer.”
His wife called family and friends while Craig curled up in the hospital bed, pulled out his smartphone and Googled “pancreatic cancer.”
And when he read that only 6 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive more than 5 years, he turned off his phone and prayed with the hospital chaplain.
‘Our own island’
Fourteen months later, the 33-year-old Merimee, father of three daughters, is receiving Hosparus care.
Merimee said he has made it one of his goals to help raise awareness about pancreatic cancer and ask the Oldham County and Louisville community to offer more support for patients and their families.
“I always felt like we were on our own island, trying to navigate our way by ourselves,” Merimee said. No one in his family has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and only 1.4 percent of pancreatic cancer patients are younger than 40.
“I don’t really have anyone my age I can turn to and talk about how I’m feeling, what I’m going through every day,” Merimee said.
He sometimes turns, if his health and family schedule permits, to Gilda’s Club of Louisville, a support group for people of all ages with different types of cancers. But some of them aren’t facing terminal illnesses and he knows no one his age battling pancreatic cancer.
“And so I battle this disease alone,” he said.
He is quick to acknowledge his family, friends and his church have been with him every step of the way, “but it’s those quiet moments at night, those strange conversations I have with my wife about what her life will be like without me. It’s those moments I know I’m by myself,” he said.
The ‘Silent Killer’
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most-common cause of cancer deaths across the globe, and an estimated 44,000 in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer by the end of this year, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Merimee has been trying to help promote PANCAN’s efforts at the local level, working with Oldham County Judge-Executive David Voegele to proclaim November as Pancreatic Awareness Month.
Unlike other cancers with common, easy to conduct screenings – like breast cancer and colon cancer – pancreatic cancer is a “silent killer,” Merimee said.
Symptoms, like stomach pain, weight loss, fatigue and jaundice, are vague and indicative of many other types of illness, he said.
“By the time about 80 percent of people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it has already spread in their body,” he said.
Merimee, whose cancer is sandwiched behind his ribcage and spread to his liver, is not an ideal candidate for surgery and chose to undergo chemotherapy.
His first treatments, which left him house-bound for about eight months, shrunk his tumor by a centimeter – “a success by medical standards,” he said.
Merimee had the summer off from treatment, and he started going back to work at BB&T of La Grange.
‘There’s a rock in Daddy’s tummy’
The hardest part of dealing with pancreatic cancer isn’t the harsh chemotherapy, vomiting, fatigue, pain medication or even the inability to sometimes perform simple physical tasks, Merimee said.
“And I’m not scared to die. I’m at peace with all of that,” said the active member of Southeast Christian Church’s Oldham Campus.
“I’m worried about my girls,” Merimee said, choking back a sob. “They think there’s a rock in my belly – and they think that I’m going to be OK.”
His daughters are Emily, 5; Morgan, 4; and Hannah, 1.
Merimee’s cancer stagnated in growth during the summer, and Merimee’s family went on a Hilton Head vacation.
But the cancer started growing again, and once again the bank branch manager found himself driving to Tennessee for a trial chemotherapy treatment.
The Merimees’ Journey
Merimee said he can relive that day in October 2010 over and again in his head.
“But it doesn’t help to look back,” he said. “I take it one day at a time and cherish every moment I have with my children and family.”
Along with his wife, Merimee maintains a blog to reflect his chemotherapy results, what his meal looks like during treatment weeks and posts unrelated to his health.
“My wife sometimes posts funny videos or we post important scriptures or prayers,” Merimee explained.
Merimee started the blog as a way to easily update his friends and family about test results.
“The blog has certainly been a good way for us to get emotions off of our chests,” he explained.
But it became an added bonus when Merimee learned his blog is helping others with pancreatic cancer cope with their diagnosis.
“We’ve had 85,000 hits, and our candidness about the disease has helped reach out to other people,” he said.
He’s corresponded online with someone from Sweden and a middle-aged woman from Goshen who are both battling pancreatic cancer.
He’s surprised to meet a fellow Oldham County resident at the fiscal court meeting in November who is also battling pancreatic cancer and attended the meeting simply to shake his hand and thank him for the blog.
“One of the biggest frustrations I have is that other cancers get more attention in the public eye than pancreatic cancer,” Merimee said.
He said he hopes others may be inspired by his story and life experience to help establish an affiliate PANCAN chapter in the Louisville area. “You would be starting from scratch, and we would need the community’s support,” he said.
PANCAN, accessed online at www.pancan.org, is a non-profit advocacy organization. Merimee said he hopes the organization will be able to challenge federal legislators to focus more money and effort on pancreatic cancer research.
Only 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s budget is dedicated to pancreatic cancer research, Merimee said.
“It’s not a glamorous field with high success rates. I mean, they’re hoping to double the five-year survival rate to 12 percent by 2020,” he said.
Even a local fundraiser such as a relay or walk challenge for pancreatic cancer research isn’t available nearby, Merimee said.
He and his family traveled to Indianapolis in July to compete in the “Purple Stride” fundraiser for pancreatic cancer research – the closest fundraiser to Kentucky.
His family and friends raised $6,300 and were named the top fundraisers.
“I’m glad to share my testimony, and I hope there are people out there that I can help,” Merimee said.
Just a few weeks after Merimee visited The Era’s office for an interview, he and Michelle reached the point of choosing between the quality and quantity of his life. Hosparus came to their home on Friday.
Merimee opted out of future chemotherapy treatments on Monday after admitting that side effects of chemotherapy are the main source of his anxiety and pain.
On the family’s blog, Michelle Merimee said Craig’s body is giving up.
“His body is just tired. And chemo and side effects on top of that war may only make the war that much more hateful to his overall condition,” she wrote.
The end of chemotherapy speaks volumes.
“It is a reminder that this is really happening. It is really happening,” she wrote.
They’ve scheduled a meeting to plan Craig’s funeral.
“I see Craig moving, not leaving us. This is not our home. He gets to go home sooner than we would have liked (by about 50 years) but he can help prepare our heavenly house until we meet again.
“And when you love someone as much as we love him, just take him and I will figure out the rest down here,” she wrote.
To follow the family’s journey, visit http://merimeejourney.blogspot.com.