2011-12-07 / Front Page

Pancreatic cancer: Raising awareness of disease that cuts lives short

BY KATHY CHANG Staff Writer
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EDISON — Purple lights lit up Lake Papaianni Park recently to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

This year, more than 44,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and nearly 38,000 will die. In fact, 74 percent of patients die within the first year of diagnosis. The five-year survival rate is 6 percent and has not changed substantially in 40 years largely because early-detection tools and effective treatments have yet to be developed. Despite these sobering statistics, just 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s federal research funding is allocated to pancreatic cancer, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

With the approval of Edison Mayor Antonia Ricigliano, the township played host to one of more than 45 PurpleLight Vigil for Hope events held throughout the country Nov. 20.

Ricigliano said when she heard about the vigil from resident Todd Cohen, media representative for the event, she jumped at the idea.

The mayor, who presented a proclamation to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, said her family lost her son-in-law, Richard Dooley, to the disease 11 years ago .“There was a lot of suffering,” she said. “He was diagnosed on March 22, 2000, and 10 weeks later on June 7, he died at the age of 39.”

Ricigliano said her daughter was left with three young children.

“Rich really didn’t have any symptoms; he had started playing basketball and becoming more active,” she said. “He was building strength, building a healthy lifestyle, and shedding pounds. Then one day he had a terrible pain and made a doctor’s appointment … he was diagnosed the next day.”

Ricigliano described the time as “just an overwhelming sadness.”

Cohen, media representative of the PurpleLight National Vigil for Hope in northern New Jersey, said he has been attending council meetings every year and has asked for proclamations to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer.

“I had met the mayor as a councilwoman, and she had mentioned to me about her son-in-law,” he said. “My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June 2001, and by Jan. 2, 2002 he was gone at the age of 59. He would have been 60 that October.”

Stephanie Blash, events coordinator of the vigil, said the vigil is an opportunity for survivors and family members of survivors and loved ones who passed to come together for comfort and encouragement. And most important, she said, to come together to take a stand and fight against pancreatic cancer.

November was National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. The candlelight vigil, which was planned by volunteers, honored those who have fought pancreatic cancer and celebrate the survivors, while raising community awareness about this leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States.

Pancreatic cancer has claimed the lives of many public figures, including Apple’s Steve Jobs, actor Patrick Swayze, Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, actor Michael Landon, jazz pianist Count Basie and opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

The event concluded with the reading of the names of those lost to pancreatic cancer and those who are survivors.

Blash said she joined the vigil to remember her father, who lost his life to the disease in 2009.

“It was June 6, 2009, the day of my 26th birthday when my 53-year-old father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and six weeks later he was gone,” she said. “You are not supposed to lose a parent when you are 26 years old … prior to that day my parents had celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary.”

Blash said it was difficult for her and her family to think about moving on without her father. She decided to use her grief to raise awareness of the cause.

“I left my job and became a nurse … and now I met all these wonderful people because I lost my father,” she said.

Nicole Trella, affiliate coordinator, said their goal was to get 6,996 volunteers.

“The 6,996 represents the estimated [number] of people who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer from the end of this November to next October,” she said.

Franco Juricic, of Highland Park, said his whole life changed when he was diagnosed in 2008.

“It was Halloween day in 2008 … it was a couple weeks before I was to run the New York City marathon and jaundice was already setting in,” he said. “That sixyear survival rate is terrible. I was blessed really that the symptoms that showed up manifested early enough that I could get effective treatment … it was pure luck, God’s will.”

Juricic said many people don’t have that luck.

“We need to do something about it because we cannot leave it up to luck,” he said. “I have two 5-year-old twins, and for me to think in 40 years when they are my age that they may face the same dismal odds is just inexcusable.”

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is the national organization that describes itself as creating hope in a comprehensive way through research, patient support, community outreach and advocacy for a cure. The organization is trying to lead the way to increase the survival rate for people diagnosed with this devastating disease through a bold initiative — The Vision of Progress: Double the Pancreatic Cancer Survival Rate by 2020.

To learn more about the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and the northern New Jersey affiliate, visit www.pancan.org. Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@gmnews.com.

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