By Karen Billing
November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness month and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is promoting its campaign to “Know it. Fight it. End it.”
Some grim facts to know: Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in America, but it gets less than 2 percent of the research budget from the National Cancer Institute.
It’s the only major cancer with a five-year survival rate in the single digits—while breast cancer has a five-year survival rate of 91 percent, pancreatic cancer’s is 6 percent.
But there can be hope, if people keep fighting.
One of the initiatives of the Action Network is to get a bill passed before the next election that calls on the National Cancer Institute to develop a strategic plan and invest more in pancreatic cancer research.
Both Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are co-sponsors of the bill, as well as local representatives Congressman Brian Bilbray of the 50th district and Congressman Bob Filner of the 51st district.
Helping lead the charge for passage of the bill is Rancho Santa Fe resident Stuart Rickerson, a five-year pancreatic cancer survivor and member of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s national board of directors.
Survival rates haven’t changed in 40 years, since President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971. Rickerson said tremendous strides have been made in a lot of diseases — an archetype is AIDS, where 30 years ago a diagnosis was a death sentence and now, for many people, it’s more a chronic disease.
“A lot of families of pancreatic cancer victims would like to see this become a chronic disease and not a death sentence,” said Rickerson. “Forty years of no results is long enough.”
Rickerson said there are many factors that contribute to making pancreatic cancer so deadly: Not much is known about what causes pancreatic cancer, the symptoms are indistinct, there’s no genetic predisposition and there’s no diagnostic test.
“This disease is an equal opportunity destroyer of families because, unlike some other diseases, it affects women and men, older folks and those in the prime of their lives, those who are disadvantaged and those who are fabulously wealthy,” Rickerson said, noting Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who had unlimited resources and could’ve gone to any place in the world for treatments but couldn’t beat it, losing his battle with the disease on Oct. 5 at age 56.
“50 percent of us are dead within six months of being diagnosed, another 75 percent within a year. That’s just tragic in the 21st century, in one of the most medically advanced countries in the world. That’s what the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is trying to address,” Rickerson said.
There are 62 affiliate Action Networks across the country and San Diego is one of the fastest growing. Mike Gau became the San Diego affiliate coordinator this year, wanting to join the fight against pancreatic cancer as his mother lost a short battle with the disease in 2008.
“Watching pancreatic cancer slowly kill my mom, a woman who was as close as it comes to a real-world saint, in front of my eyes, was my main reason for wanting to take action against pancreatic cancer,” Gau said. “On top of that, the more I learned about pancreatic cancer, the more I realized how much of an underdog the disease is compared to other cancers and diseases.”
Gau has been amazed at the level of support there has been in San Diego. The Action Networks’ signature fundraising event, the PurpleStride, had about 800 people participate this year, raising $75,000. Participation was up from 250 people and $25,000 in 2010.
“There are few pancreatic survivors because of how deadly the disease is and, as such, it’s up to us as volunteers to raise public awareness of the terror of this disease and to raise money to fund much-needed research,” Gau said.
Rickerson was one of the lucky ones. He was lucky that he decided to go to a doctor and lucky that his doctor was smart enough to keep asking questions and lucky that his disease was detected early enough to act.
It was New Year’s Eve in 2004 and Rickerson, then 55 years old, was feeling some mild indigestion. He decided to go to his doctor, who prescribed an antibiotic and did some blood work.
That weekend, Rickerson and his wife noticed that his skin was yellowish (jaundice, one symptom of pancreatic cancer), so he reported back to his doctor to run more tests. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Jan. 12, 2005.
Rickerson said for many people, by the time they present with symptoms and are diagnosed, they are not candidates for surgery because their tumor is too far advanced. Thankfully, his cancer was caught early enough that he was a candidate for surgery and went in for the intense, seven-hour procedure four days after his diagnosis.
He additionally underwent chemotherapy and a course of radiation treatment.
“I’m lucky because I’m here, not like so many people whose families can only remember them,” Rickerson said. “I’m thankful for every day I’ve been given”
As he could no longer work, Rickerson made it a priority to try get involved in PCAN, an organization he believes has the most comprehensive and strategic plan to provide hope for patients, generate research and advocate for a cure.
He has been involved with PCAN for the last four years on a local and national level and has served on the national board since 2010. He attends scientific symposiums, events and Purple Strides (the organization’s fundraising walk) all over the country.
With more than 550 other volunteers and survivors from all over the country, Rickerson lobbied for pancreatic cancer at Congressional Advocacy Day last year. He said it was incredibly moving, as empowered volunteers and survivors who had been through so much visited almost every office on Capitol Hill for their cause.
He believes strongly that people can make a difference to change the world, that they can get a bill passed and reach PCAN’s goal of doubling the five-year survival rate by the year 2020.
“I’m very encouraged that this year will be the year,” Rickerson said. “I hope that next Advocacy Day our job will be to thank senators and congress people for getting something done in this challenging climate for the hundreds of thousands Americans who will be affected by this disease.”
For more information, visit www.pancan.org