Maija and David: A love story ended too soon

"The only way I can make sense of losing David is to see if someone else can be saved.”

Two years after David’s death, the pain and bewilderment of losing her husband so quickly to cancer is still palpable in Maija Karppa's voice.

"Being a practical man, David knew his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer was a death sentence. He told me flatly when they found the lump, ‘I’m going to die,” recalls Maija. "I just said, ‘You’re nuts. You have no symptoms, you’re healthy, you’re a vegetarian, and you’re active. Your Mom lived to 98, you will outlive us all.’

“He just looked at me and said, ‘No, Maija, I’m going to be gone in five months.” And four months later, her soul mate of over 30 years was gone.

When Maija and David met at work in the late 70s, they both felt an instant attraction.

“He was tall and handsome, with a wicked sense of humour. He was a calm person, but he was also full of life,” Maija says.

Both worked in the same department, and both had recently been divorced, so they took things slow. Still, being together felt inevitable. “I said to myself, second time happy,” remembers Maija.

She and David shared a love of gardening, hiking and travel. They spent a year travelling across Europe in a camper van, making a stop in Maija’s native Finland to visit her family. Years later, David, an architect, would design a beautiful home in Picton for their retirement that paid homage to her Scandinavian roots.

During a routine check-up before another long camper van trip, their family doctor thought he heard something in David’s heart. The doctor sent David for ultrasound and CT scans, which revealed a lump on his pancreas. His doctor suggested going to Kingston for treatment, but David insisted on coming back to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

“David had been cured of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at The Princess Margaret back in 1996,” Maija says. “He felt he had received good care there, and the doctors listened to him and respected his choices.”

This time, David was referred to Dr. David Hedley, an oncologist in The Princess Margaret’s Pancreatic Tumor Clinic.  “Dr. Hedley is absolutely lovely, the kind of down-to-earth, old-fashioned doctor who tells you the truth. All the staff were so good, so caring,” says Maija.

When David’s cancer was found to be inoperable, Dr. Hedley said two months of chemo might give him more time. But after a month of treatments, David was so sick and weak, he said, “Maija, I’m going home.”

Maija looked after David by herself, with the support of close friends and a local nurse.

“The hardest part was watching him vanish in front of my eyes. He couldn’t eat. He just faded away,” Maija says. David died in August, just four months after his diagnosis, at the age of 62.

“It’s been two years now, but there are still times when I expect him to walk in the door, like he’s been on a long holiday,” says Maija. “There are days when I’m ok, and then there are moments… it could be music, or a scent, or a lovely summer evening… when I feel like someone has hit me with a sledgehammer.”

Maija finds solace in making gifts to The Princess Margaret at three special times of the year – to mark David’s birthday, the day he died, and at Christmas.

“I’m not wealthy, but I’m comfortable. So I donate any extra money I have to pancreatic cancer research. Nobody talks about it much and there are often no symptoms until it’s too late,” she says. “I’m confident the doctors and researchers at The Princess Margaret will find new solutions soon, because it’s a world-class cancer centre.”

To find out more about how you can support pancreatic cancer research, please contact Christy Morrow at (416) 946-2107 or email Christy.Morrow@thepmcf.ca.