Fiona Ray

For our Inaugural first issue, I am honored to present our Special Guest, Fiona Ray.

My Story

“It was August 13th, 2021. We’d just returned from a two week, magical Costa Rican vacation with some of our nearest and dearest. We visited the small surf town of Tamarindo and stayed in a gorgeous home in Playa Langosta. We played, we swam, we surfed, we atv’d, we ziplined, we sailed, we laughed and we enjoyed every single moment of it. And underneath all the sun-kissed joy, I knew something wasn’t quite right.

It had been six months of symptoms, multiple doctor visits, unfamiliar and uncontrollable symptoms, Google deep dives, ultrasounds, and scans until one day I was driving to work and I looked in my rear view mirror and my eyes were yellow. Chris said, “enough is enough, I’m taking you to the emergency room.” We found ourselves at UCLA Westwood in the midst of a COVID surge only to be told I was not acute enough with the recommendation of an appointment with my internist. Part of me wanted to believe the doctor who was visibly exhausted, hair disheveled and on the front lines of an ER well beyond its capacity. Because I really didn’t want to know. But I knew. And Chris was angry. We went home and phoned a friend. We were directed to UCLA Santa Monica who 24 hours prior had changed their visitor policy adapting to the surge. Chris wasn’t allowed in with me. He waited as they wheeled me back.

I’ll never forget the doctor’s face when I recounted the last six months and all the accompanying symptoms. I saw five different doctors, three of which were endocrinologists who told me my symptoms were related to hyperthyroidism. He shook his head. They medicated me and sent me for an MRI.

It was midnight. Friday the 13th. I have always been mildly superstitious but this cemented it for me. The doctor entered the room. Fluorescent light overhead. In a hospital gown with a heated blanket gone cold. “We’ve found a mass on your pancreas,” he said.

My mind and body went numb. My vision started to blur and all I could hear was a soft yet deafening throb. I’m not sure how long this lasted but I know I came out of it with a gut wrenching, jaw clenching sorrowing. But what about my kids. My sweet, innocent, loving, curious kids with a whole bunch of life ahead of them. Young kids. Kids who need their mom. What did this mean? How was this possible? I didn’t want to die. I don’t want to die. This is not my time. This cannot be their story. My story.

I was by myself in that room. I sobbed and sobbed. And sobbed. I pleaded. I pleaded with them. I pleaded with God. I begged them to let Chris in. I felt raw, terrified, vulnerable, angry, and confused. The wind knocked out of me; I could hardly breathe. My mind was racing. I was furiously searching the internet. If there’s one thing I wish I’d never done, it was search the internet. Most of what I read painted a bleak picture with little chance of survival. And so I sat. I wailed in anguish until they finally let Chris in – he’d slept in the parking lot. And then we wailed, together. We clutched each other while we felt like we were drowning in our own tears.

Soon thereafter, we met with my brilliant surgeon, Dr Joe Hines. He told me we had two options, operate now or proceed with chemo first and then surgery. He said if he was thinking like a scientist, he would say chemo first. I remember trying to get a read on him. I was a mess in his office and I almost felt like it bothered him. I later learned, he’s a man of few words, intensely composed and brilliant. Nevertheless, we took his advice and made an appointment with Dr Lee Rosen, a seasoned oncologist, who he felt would be a good fit. I am so grateful to have been paired with Dr Rosen who knows how to reach me and more specifically talks me off the ledge when I can’t see my way through.

I started chemo, September 2, 2021. I was in front of six months of Folfirinox, a very aggressive treatment option.

Along the way, I had really great support with close friends and family. I chose to be very private about my journey. It was a mixture of ego and the fear of vulnerability. I was quiet about it at work though I’m sure people sensed something. I was lucky not to lose all my hair as I’d started with a lion’s mane. But the treatment cycles were challenging on multiple levels both physically and emotionally. I remember feeling isolated and lonely. And despite being accompanied to most appointments and infusions, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no one could really understand what I was experiencing. It wasn’t until I was connected with other survivors that flickers of hope turned into bright lights. And with each treatment, I got closer to the operating room.

In March of 2022, I was cleared for surgery. I was grateful to be in the hands of Dr Hines and his team at UCLA. They performed a meticulous Whipple procedure and I was out of the hospital in six days. The days that followed were filled with gratitude and crippling fear. What if it came back? How do I keep it at bay? I was paralyzed in many ways and at the same time, I was so deeply appreciative of every breath I took, every moment I locked eyes with my children, every sweet embrace with my husband, the blue in the sky, the green on the grass – every single second, I didn’t and don’t take for granted.

The cancer journey has been a call to action; a deepening of my spiritual connection and radical acceptance. With diagnosis came exploration of all the ways I had abandoned myself and the path back to who I wanted to be as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend and an employee. I learned quickly that I am not my diagnosis nor am I a statistic. Blending eastern and western medicinal philosophies helped me address the whole person. I have been blessed with incredible support with my family, my friends, co-workers and most importantly God.

It’s my relationship with God that’s carried me through the twists and turns of this journey. In March of 2023, they discovered a recurrence. While I’ve undergone another surgery, radiation and more treatment, I’m in more faith than I’ve ever been. The healing path is not linear, I’ve learned. I am healing and I know I will watch my kids grow up, by the grace of God.”

Fiona's Rose

I am posting this rose today in honor of the March 10, 2024 passing of my best friend in the Pancreatic cancer community, Fiona.

I encourage you to read her story and be inspired by her elegance, depth, wisdom, vulnerability, Warrior spirit, and dedication to her family as she traveled the cancer journey.

I chose this particular rose because its beauty reminds me of young Fiona- the bud still unfolding in the center – covered with raindrops, which represent my grief and sadness at losing her.

I fell in love with this 46-year-old young woman on the day I met her, 1 year ago. She instantly captured my heart. At that first meeting, we shared our experiences with surgery, chemotherapy, our shared Oncologist. We cried, laughed, showed each other our scars, our chemo-fried, thinned hair, and fears after completing treatment. We hugged each other tightly.

Over the year, we frequently texted – giving each other love and encouragement on the darkest days, praying for one another, sharing our ongoing cancer journeys. Our love gave us comfort and the peacefulness of knowing we had each other, no matter what. We were “family.”

When I was ready to launch my new website for cancer patients around the world, I leaned on Fiona:

I sent her the draft for the Home page. “Do you think it will be helpful?” She responded with an enthusiastic “I know you are going to help a lot of people around the world! And I Love the photo of the bee.”

“Do you like these other Pages I am constructing?” She gave me a quick “I LOVE them!”

One by one, as the Pages created themselves, Fiona was the first person to read them. I trusted her judgment and knew she would be truthful. Slowly, they grew to 7: HOME, ABOUT, DIAGNOSIS, FEAR, NUTRITION, MOVEMENT, SPIRIT.

It then became clear to me that I wanted a special page that would feature the cancer patients themselves. It is no surprise that I asked my Fiona to be the inaugural “Special Guest.”

It was really fun to work on this project together. She said, “Yes,” immediately, but she was very humble and a bit shy. I asked her to text me a sentence, which she did. Then I said, “I want MORE. Send me a paragraph.” And so it went, paragraph by paragraph, over the next weeks.

I prodded her to share her feelings, her vulnerability, what about the journey was especially tough or challenging. “Think of the cancer patients that we want to reach around the world who have no voice and feel isolated, frightened, depressed, lost.”

I was BLOWN AWAY when I got the final copy! She dove deep within her heart, body, mind, emotions and spirit and shared her experience in the most intimate, compelling, breathtaking manner. I cried when I read her story; it was so beautiful. I could barely breathe. I was so darned proud of her!