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Incredible Women Making A Difference: A Lesson From Breast Cancer Survivors

by Renita Van Dusen

Sometimes I get jealous at breast cancer survivors. I know this is an awful thing to say. Of course, no one wants cancer. But the part that I envy is this: Most of the women I know who have breast cancer ARE survivors. They are living with cancer. They are fighters.

My mom was a pancreatic cancer patient, and she didn’t get to be a fighter. She died at age 56, before any of her grandchildren were born. As she put it when she was diagnosed, “Renita, this is a death sentence.” She was right. Seven short months after her diagnosis, she was dead. And my daughter will never meet her grandma.

While at times I have felt that pang of jealousy when comparing pancreatic cancer and breast cancer – not only because one has a drastically higher survival rate but also because one gets significantly more attention and research dollars – I know I need a bit of a reality check. I need to remember that these breast cancer survivors – these courageous women – over the past 25 years have created a movement. They have – and they are – making a HUGE difference.

I was asked yesterday, “If pancreatic cancer is so deadly, why does pancreatic cancer research receive so little funding: privately or publicly?” I’m no expert, but I gave the answer that I truly believe: people affected by pancreatic cancer fall into two camps: 1) “My loved one died. I can’t bear to think about it anymore. It was too painful.” Or, 2) “My loved one died. I will fight for the rest of my life to try to make a difference so that others don’t have to go through what my family went through.” I happen to fall into Camp #2.

What we – as pancreatic cancer activists – are missing is PANCREATIC CANCER SURVIVORS. Pancreatic cancer patients CAN’T FIGHT FOR THEMSELVES because most of them succumb to the disease within a year of diagnosis (75% to be exact). We have to advocate for them.

25 years ago, the media shied away from printing or voicing the words “breast cancer.” No one talked openly about the disease. There were no support groups. Susan G. Komen (a household name today, for sure) and the color pink have changed all that. There has been a 25-year movement from women around the world, and they will not stop until there is a cure.

Nancy G. Brinker, Susan’s sister and founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, notes, “When we started, the five-year survival rate was just 74 percent when breast cancer was diagnosed before it spread beyond the breast. Today, that survival rate is 98 percent.” Imagine that. 98%.

Only 6% of pancreatic cancer patients survive more than five years after diagnosis. 75% of patients die within the first year of diagnosis. The average life expectancy after diagnosis with metastatic disease is just three to six months. PANCREATIC CANCER IS ONE OF THE FEW CANCERS FOR WHICH THE SURVIVAL RATE HAS NOT IMPROVED SUBSTANTIALLY OVER NEARLY 40 YEARS. This is unacceptable.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) spent an estimated $89.4 million on pancreatic cancer research in 2009. This represented a mere 2% of the NCI’s approximate $5 billion cancer research budget for that year. With pancreatic cancer being the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States, this is an outrage. In addition, in the next 20 years, the incidence of pancreatic cancer is expected to go up by 55%. This is just plain scary.

My idea, albeit a lofty one: What if pancreatic cancer was the hardest nut to crack, so to speak? What if, by cracking the code to what causes pancreatic cancer, we discovered the answer to what causes ALL cancers. WHAT IF???

Breast cancer survivors and activists have taught us all the importance of speaking up. Thank you to the many women – and men – who have taught us how to start a movement. Money going towards ANY cancer is a step in the right direction. I hope and believe there’s enough energy, commitment, and money to care about all types of cancer. And when we act on what we’ve learned from the breast cancer movement, we can help those with who have been diagnosed – or are yet to be diagnosed – with all forms of cancer.

In the spirit of passion, commitment and determination … Let’s start seeing more PURPLE. I’m one woman fighting for my mom (and perhaps myself or my children someday) AND I WON’T STOP EITHER. This month, the Twin Cities will be seeing PURPLE. The 5th annual PurpleRide Twin Cities will be held at Elm Creek Regional Park in Maple Grove. Please join me by volunteering, donating or simply raising awareness about pancreatic cancer. Thank you.