A Force for Progress
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As a young adult, whenever I envisioned my future, I pictured my mom Cleo as a constant presence, providing love and guidance, helping me navigate and celebrate important milestones like marriage and motherhood, and being my rock during difficult times. I was heartbroken when Mommy—my best friend—was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when I was only 23.
My mom was the supportive, fascinating woman everyone loved. She enjoyed music, movies, and traveling, and always had the right answer but waited until you found it on your own. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006, when she was just 54, had no family history of the disease, and was otherwise healthy. At first, the doctors thought she had pneumonia because of the wheezing noise in her chest, but it turned out to be lung cancer. As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, during her PET scan, we were shocked to learn she also had pancreatic cancer, completely unrelated to the lung cancer. My dad and I focused on our role as her caregivers and support system.
Luckily, Mommy was a candidate for pancreatic cancer surgery. While she didn’t have a complete Whipple procedure, she did have part of her pancreas removed, as well as her gall bladder and spleen. She opted not to have chemotherapy following her surgery and instead focused on nutrition, her faith, the power of a positive attitude, and the hope her medical team provided. I found the best way I could help her cope was to follow her lead, be there to listen, and support her in making her own treatment decisions.
My mom was so strong and always put on a brave face because she didn’t want anyone to worry. However, I remember being torn apart hearing her cry at night when she thought no one could hear her. She continued to put others first, even as she fought this disease. She bought me a dog because she knew Coco would be a source of great comfort and unconditional love, and Coco was by my side for 16 ½ years.
During a family vacation in 2007, I felt a change in my mom, like her hope and her confidence that she would beat this disease were, for the first time, slipping away. Mommy was tired, she wasn’t laughing at things that made her happy in the past, and we knew she was getting sicker. We had a quiet Christmas that year, fearing it would be her last with us. My mom still managed to keep up the tradition of decorating the tree and the house, even setting up her beloved Christmas village as she’d done my whole childhood. However, she became so sick that she was admitted to the hospital the day after Christmas and never came home. She passed away on January 12, 2008, and my dad and I returned to a house filled with festive decorations and so many memories, a heartbreaking reminder of all we had lost that holiday season. I’ve now started a tradition with my five-year-old son where we set up part of my mom’s Christmas village every year, and I share stories about her, so my son gets to know her through me.
After my mom passed, I attended the Lustgarten Foundation’s Walks for Pancreatic Cancer Research in Paramus, NJ and in Long Island because I felt so compelled to get involved and be surrounded by people who could empathize with the overwhelming loss and anguish I was grappling with. Unfortunately, these locations were too far from our home in New Jersey for my family to join me. Despite having no formal event planning or fundraising experience, I took the bold step to contact the Lustgarten Foundation and start the first Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research in Monmouth, NJ, in 2010. My dad was instrumental in supporting my decision to lead the Walk, and he believed in my vision and goals for the event. With the Walk so close to our home, all of our family and friends could come together to memorialize and remember our Cleo and celebrate her life and legacy.
For the past 12 years, I have dedicated myself to spearheading the Monmouth County Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and I’m so grateful the Walk has raised nearly $1.4 million for research to date and attracts so many participants that we’ve outgrown our first two Walk venues! Getting involved with the Lustgarten Foundation provided the outlet I needed to channel my grief and negative energy into something positive and hopeful. It gave me the opportunity to make a real impact on this disease, for my mom, and for the thousands of others who face pancreatic cancer with courage, determination, and grace.
I’m honored to support an organization where 100% of every donation funds research and supports the brightest researchers who are on the cusp of so many life-changing breakthroughs. I believe because of the Lustgarten Foundation, a cure for pancreatic cancer will be found. I know my mom would be incredibly proud to see how our family has partnered with the Lustgarten Foundation to become a force for progress in changing disease outcomes and patients’ lives.