It’s been 10 years since my father died of pancreatic cancer. Ten years since he was delivering lectures as a college professor or making calls on the basketball court as a high school official. Ten years since he’s taken me to the U.S. Open to enjoy his passion for tennis or the old Yankee Stadium to cheer on the Bronx Bombers.
Ten. Long. Years.
He died on July 2, 2002 of pancreatic cancer – a disease that I knew about as much about as bioquantum physics.
So, what’s happened in the past 10 years?
Obviously, my family and I are 10 years older. My dad never had a chance to laugh with and experience the joys that my niece and nephew bring to our family’s lives. I made a career change and followed him in the world of teaching and watched as the New York Giants captured two more Super Bowl titles.
The world is a vastly different place. Since he’s been gone there have been major achievements throughout science and technology. In the medical world there have been discoveries in stem cell research to a 40 percent decrease in heart disease related deaths to achievements in breast cancer and HIV survival.
But no major breakthroughs with pancreatic cancer.
My father never owned an iPod. He was too busy taking regular chemo treatments at a local oncologist’s office to purchase the newly created Apple invention. His cell phone just made calls. Internet access? That was only done via his PC. Facebook and Twitter were still years away from being on anyone’s map and a “Wii” was known as the first word of the U.S. Constitution. Now, all of these things are about as common as MP3s, which my father might have thought were some type of military explosive or maybe the letter-number combination that were featured on that week’s episode of Sesame Street.
Ironically, some of those achievements were made famous by Steve Jobs, another father who, despite all the resources in the world, couldn’t avert a similar fate as my dad. He also lost his battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer (pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor) in 2011.
But still, no advances in the sordid world of pancreatic cancer.
Which brings me to where I am today – stepping into a role that my father never had the opportunity to assume. I am a volunteer for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (www.pancan.org), the national organization creating hope in a comprehensive way through research, patient support, community outreach and advocacy for a cure. I’ve traveled to five states and Washington, D.C. to advocate for a cure, written numerous letters to politicians and articles about the disease and worked to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to find the answer to this problem.
All of this hard work and still, nothing new in the fight against pancreatic cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, while cancer cases have dropped overall, pancreatic cancer cases have risen since 2004. When my father died, the survival rate for pancreatic cancer was about five percent. Ten years later, the rate for his type of cancer has seen no significant change. Many of the futile treatments that stabilized his tumor for a short time are still being used today, and there has been no substantial improvement in tackling this disease.
The average life expectancy for pancreatic cancer is about five to seven months and only about 26 percent of those who are diagnosed live one year or longer. The numbers for pancreatic cancer are staggering, and still the National Cancer Institute, which provides the federal funding for this insidious disease, only allocates 2 percent of its annual budget to pancreatic cancer research. That’s a number that’s far too low.
Over the past decade, I’ve been to more funerals for people who have lost valiant battles to pancreatic cancer: Wendy Keil and Dennis Disken from Morris County, Donna Palino from Middlesex County and Steve Sommer and Gary Barr from Clark. I’ve befriended people from all across the country: Boston, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Detroit, Austin, to Boise, Idaho. Many of their Facebook posts about loved ones lost to this disease rip through me like a knife through butter. Like my father, most of them had no chance to beat the insurmountable odds.
A recent pancreatic cancer vaccine from the Cancer Institute of New Jersey offers a small dose of hope, but we still have miles to go. We need to make our voices heard. Currently, a bill is sitting in Congress called the Pancreatic Cancer Research & Education Act (S. 362/ H.R. 733). Once enacted and fully funded, it will ensure that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) develops a long-term comprehensive strategic plan for developing early diagnostics and treatment options that will increase the survival rate for pancreatic cancer patients. The legislation is garnering bi-partisan support and currently more than half of the House and nearly half of the Senate have co-sponsored the bill. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-7th) is a co-sponsor for the bill that needs more support nationwide.
On June 25th, hundreds of people, including myself, will head to Washington, D.C., for Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day. Many others will participate in a National Call-In and contact their Congressmen to ask them for their support.
This legislation won’t save the life of my father but it might help others avoid going through the same sickening agony and loss our family and more than 37,000 others throughout this country will be forced to endure this year.
My family has waited 10 years to find an answer to pancreatic cancer. Maybe 10 years from now, I’ll have something better to report – for myself and so many others.
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