“If you work hard enough, you can achieve anything.”
Those words that my father would tell me during times of difficulty, helped guide me through my formative years. From performing well on challenging assessments in the classroom to climbing from the lowest-ranked tennis player my freshman year of high school to earning a spot on the varsity squad by my junior season. That quote provided me a much-needed lift to overcome many of the obstacles I faced.
Just over 10 years ago, my father, Richard, died of pancreatic cancer, a disease that has a five-year survival rate of just six percent. Healthy and active for most of his nearly 60 years, the disease came out of nowhere and robbed him of his time with us. With no early detection method and few effective treatments, the college professor had about as much chance of beating his illness as I did of taking down Andre Agassi during my peak; Even if I wore Agassi’s own Nike Air Tech Challenge shoes.
Obviously, I didn’t always achieve what I desired. Disappointment is a natural part of life, and something everyone has to face. I remember wanting to put my fist through my bedroom wall after losing the Carl H. Kumpf School (in Clark) seventh grade Vice Presidential Election by a landslide. How bad was it? My own Campaign Manager didn’t vote for me. But I rallied back to successfully run for school office in the high school. Each time, I had my family’s support.
After seeing my father go through a year of unparalleled suffering, I had to do something to help others rally back and avoid his dismal fate. I teamed up with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (www.pancan.org), the national organization that creates hope in a comprehensive way through research, patient support, community outreach and advocacy for a cure. I started volunteering in 2007 to change the course of pancreatic cancer. Since the movement’s color is purple, I started expanding my wardrobe to match that of the last color in the rainbow. I wear a purple bracelet or ribbon everywhere I go to help raise awareness for this insidious disease.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most overlooked and underfunded diseases in the country. Only two percent of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) annual budget is dedicated to pancreatic cancer research. It’s a startling figure when you consider that nearly 44,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease this year and more than 37,000 will die from the disease. We host a PurpleStride New Jersey Run/Walk every year to honor and remember those afflicted with the disease. Even when Hurricane Sandy wiped out our event this past November, we worked to reschedule it for January 6th at the Parsippany Hilton at 2 p.m.
For the past six years, hundreds of volunteers have worked to provide more attention for the disease, which currently is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Across the country, people have been making countless trips, making phone calls, and sending emails to their members of Congress o to ask them to pass the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act, formerly known as the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act. This piece of legislation requires the NCI to evaluate its current efforts in studying pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, and other recalcitrant cancers, and focus on ways to improve outcomes.
And you know what? Congress listened! All of our hard work and persistence paid off. The legislators recently passed the historic legislation that will finally bring hope to those fighting the disease. The bill, which passed through both houses as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, will now be sent to President Obama to sign into law.
Several years after his death, another professor and “The Last Lecture” author Randy Pausch added to my father’s piece of advice about preserving when the going got tough.
“The brick walls are there for a reason,” Pausch said. “The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”
Like my dad, Pausch was afflicted by pancreatic cancer and lost his battle less than two years after diagnosis. Their huge obstacle, just like former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, physicist and first American woman in space, Sally Ride, actors Patrick Swayze, and Michael Landon, was a brick wall that all the money and resources in the world couldn’t topple.
More obstacles are there for those fighting the battle against pancreatic cancer. We need more resources and viable treatment options to extend the lives of those battling this disease and increase the chances of survival. The clock is ticking. According to a recently released report, the incidence and death rates for pancreatic cancer are increasing, and pancreatic cancer is anticipated to move from the fourth to second leading cancer killer in the U.S. by 2020, and possibly as early as 2015.
That means more lives are at stake and more work needs to be done.
Until then, I will keep advocating and fighting to triumph over impediments that stand in my way. Just like I did in the classroom and on the tennis court.
But this time, I will be wearing purple shoes.
Todd Cohen is the Media Representative for the Northern New Jersey Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. For more information about the group, go to www.pancan.org/newjersey or email Todd at TCohen@pancanvolunteer.org