LEWISTON — On June 16, 2008, 40-year-old Christina Parrish was told she had six months to live, because of stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Even after months of not feeling well, the news hit her like a freight train.
“I was completely floored,” Parrish said. “I was in denial. I knew my doctor had to be wrong. I was too young to have pancreatic cancer.”
Then she read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. She said it taught her how to reclaim her mind in the midst of her crushing reality, and allowed her to calm down enough to focus and keep her eye on the prize: life.
“If I had only six months, I wanted them to happy,” she said. “I had no time to be any other way. But the funny thing is, it became a way of life. Not every day is a great day, but there is always something good in your day that you can focus on.”
Because of her iron will to live and her passion for bringing the hope she felt to others, Parrish, founder of the Purple Iris Foundation, is the winner of the 2017 Amanda Dempsey Award presented by Amgen’s Breakaway from Cancer.
Every year the award is given to a cancer survivor who shows a passion for helping others going through the same fight. The award is given in honor of Amanda Dempsey, the mother of actor Patrick Dempsey, who founded the Dempsey Center in 2008.
When Parrish was initially diagnosed, she was told by oncologists in the Bangor area that she would be put on a chemotherapy regimen, a treatment option that she knew from doing her own research had only a 2 percent survival rate.
When she mentioned some alternative treatment options, she was told they were not available through that hospital. A second opinion at a bigger hospital yielded no results.
Then she saw a commercial for Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and called. Turns out it was exactly the kind of organization Parrish had been seeking.
She flew to the Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Illinois, and received CT scans and other tests, and confirmed her diagnosis: a mass in her pancreas and lesions on her liver: stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Parrish received chemo intravenously, along with intra-arterial chemo to her liver and pancreas. It was “intense,” but was effective in shrinking the mass.
“My first spring (after my diagnosis) was something to behold,” she said. “I felt in love with the beauty and resiliency of flowers. When you’re told you will never see another spring, it felt like Christmas morning.”
Through four rounds of the intra-arterial chemo, Parrish experienced the nasty side effects of cancer treatment: nausea, hair loss, little to no immune system, and she had to have several blood transfusions.
Every month for two years, she returned to the center for about a week to receive her chemotherapy. Massages, multivitamins, green tea, fish oil and acupuncture are a few things that helped her combat the side effects of the chemo.
In her second year of treatment, she began to feel stronger, as if her body had “regenerated itself.”
In early 2012 she was put on a “chemo holiday” to see how her body would react. She’s still on that holiday.
“At that point, The Purple Iris Foundation became more of the focus,” Parrish said. “I really just wanted to plant hope for pancreatic cancer awareness. I needed a way to cope with the loss of so many friends and fellow pancreatic cancer warriors.”
It began as the Purple Iris Brigade, a group in Hampden that planted purple irises in town. Then, much like the flowers it planted, the movement grew.
“We plant all over Bangor, Brewer and Bucksport,” Parrish said. “We provide a monthly support group for anyone affected by cancer. This year we are going to be offering a caregiver support group. I also speak to pancreatic cancer patients all over the world. So this little grass-roots nonprofit has been slowly gaining steam and respect.”
The Purple Iris Foundation is gearing up for its biggest event, Pound the Pavement, on Oct. 15. The event is a 5-kilometer color run, in which participants get sprayed with the colors that represent types of cancer, ending with purple as they near the finish line.
“To help others find hope — it can be such a powerful thing,” Parrish said. “We all need hope, especially while battling this beast called cancer.”
Parrish will accept her award in a private ceremony Saturday evening during the Dempsey Challenge, which runs Oct. 7 and 8.
For more information about the Purple Iris Foundation, visit www.purpleirisfoundation.com.
Christina Parrish, winner of the 2017 Amanda Dempsey Award.
Dempsey Challenge starts Friday
The 2017 Dempsey Challenge kicks off Friday. The highlight of the day will be the arrival of the Conquer Cancer Riders from South Carolina at the Longley Bridge in Lewiston-Auburn at about 3 p.m., who will be welcomed by Dempsey Center namesake and actor Patrick Dempsey and other Challenge participants. A full slate of events runs from early Saturday morning through Sunday afternoon. For a schedule and more on the Challenge, go to www.dempseycenter.org/dempsey-challenge-information/.