Families carry torch for lost loved ones

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A cancer diagnosis by a doctor is often followed by a list of treatment options and a positive look at how medical advancements have improved survivability. That’s not the case with pancreatic cancer.

Perhaps the most devastating of the cancers, it is known as the one that’s typically too advanced for intervention. The survivor rate for late-stage patients is a meager 6 percent.

The available information and statistics didn’t provide much hope for Parker resident Rich Phillips, who was diagnosed in 2004 with stage-4 pancreatic cancer. He knew he was dying, and instead of flowers, asked friends and family to put their money toward research in the hopes that no one else would have to endure the pain of the disease.

His wife, Meg, and their daughters have followed through with his wish, and then some, by creating the Denver version of the Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk, one of Colorado’s most prominent memorial run/walks and fundraisers for research. The event – this year’s is Nov. 4 at Sloan’s Lake Park in Denver – started in New York and is named for the former chief executive officer of Cablevision, Marc Lustgarten, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer at age 52.

Through the inspirational event, in which participants share stories and pin photos of departed loved ones on their shirts, Phillips has built a bond with countless women who have lost their husbands, including Highlands Ranch resident Karen Robinson.

Her husband, Stew, was given three months to live after his 2004 diagnosis. The doctors “would not touch him” and told him to quit his job and “go home and die,” Robinson said. But with help from a Houston-based treatment center called MD Anderson Cancer Center, her husband lived for three years.

Meg Phillips met another friend, Carey Lejeune, because Lejeune’s father, Bill, was undergoing treatment at the same time and place as Rich Phillips. The men established an incredible bond, and so, too, have the women as they raise money for intensive research through the Lustgarten Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk, which is entering its sixth year having raised $286,000 thus far.

Sadly, many of the survivors who participated in previous races have since passed away. Robinson said she has met only one pancreatic cancer survivor, a man at MD Anderson who was diagnosed nearly 15 years ago.

The deaths of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, astronaut Sally Ride and actor Patrick Swayze have increased awareness about pancreatic cancer in recent years, but Phillips, Robinson and Lejeune, who are part of the research walk’s organizing team, know there is still much work to be done.

Meanwhile, they take heart in promising innovations for early detection, including a camera-scope that reaches deeper into the recesses of internal organs than ultrasounds do. They are also hoping scientists can further define possible dietary factors and genetic links in the existence of pancreatic cancer.

Robinson, whose husband’s life was prolonged enough for him to witness the high school and college graduations of their two sons, is an advocate of regular screenings for relatives of patients.

All of their efforts, from the run/walk to silent auctions, are made in the name of finding a means of effective early diagnosis, treatments and eventually a cure. All proceeds from the race – there are no administrative costs – go toward research. The Lustgarten Foundation funds studies at 40 medical centers around world.

When asked what her husband might say about her diligence in raising awareness and money, Phillips fights off tears.

“I think he would be proud because we’re working with scientists and researchers to help,” the Parker resident said. “He would say ‘good for you, but stop using my name so much.’”

The first run/walk drew 22 walkers and raised $42,000. The goal in 2012 is 700 walkers and $100,000 in donations. Participants are asked to contribute $50 when they register at www.lustgarten.org or call 1-866-789-1000.

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