A Love that Transcends Pancreatic Cancer

Posted On Mar 22, 2023

Topic: Announcement, Hide on Homepage, Real Talk: Survivor, Patient & Family Stories, Your Source for Breaking News & Inspirational Stories
A Love that Transcends Pancreatic Cancer

Dennis Bavaria

It breaks my heart that my soulmate, Claire Rose—my wife for 38 years and my best friend—had so little time to enjoy her well-deserved retirement, and we didn’t have the chance to grow old together. In 2013, five months after she retired from her career in human resources at the Department of Agriculture, we were traveling in Paris and Normandy, and the day before we left France, she had a stomach ache which we assumed was nothing to worry about. When we returned home to Pennsylvania and Claire still felt ill, she went to see her doctor, who thought she might have food poisoning. The next day she woke up with severe stomach pain, and I took her to the emergency room of our local hospital. Doctors performed several tests including a CT scan with contrast and determined she had pancreatic cancer, and I couldn’t stop crying. Even though Claire’s aunt and cousin had both passed away from pancreatic cancer, we were still completely surprised by Claire’s diagnosis. After all, Claire had blood tests and a checkup just one month prior to her diagnosis, and everything came back normal. How, in one month, could cancer progress so unbelievably quickly?

Claire was the most selfless wife and loving mother to our two sons, Anthony and Christopher, and above all, she was a woman of great faith. Claire fought pancreatic cancer with all of her strength, despite knowing it was likely she wouldn’t make a full recovery. She didn’t even cry when she heard her diagnosis because she was so worried about me! A cousin recommended we meet with a renowned pancreatic cancer specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, and while he performed Claire’s biopsy, she went into shock and had to be put on a ventilator; I was afraid I had lost her. The next morning Claire came out of shock and was breathing on her own. However, our relief was short-lived, as we were told that her cancer had already progressed to stage 4 and had metastasized to her liver, ruling out surgery as a treatment option.

Claire received chemotherapy, but her blood counts were too low to administer her third treatment, so her appointment was rescheduled for December 6—our 38th wedding anniversary. We spent what should have been a day celebrating our love instead being told that Claire’s blood counts were still too low to administer treatment and that she might have only a few weeks left to live. On December 16, just eight weeks after Claire’s diagnosis, she passed away, leaving our family with the most overwhelming grief; everything had happened so fast that it was impossible to process it. I took comfort in knowing she died with a smile on her face, surrounded by her loved ones right up until the end. On the day of her passing, I sang our song, “True Love,” to her for the last time. Claire was so adored by her family, friends, former co-workers, and community that nearly 500 people attended her funeral. I promised her I’d do my best to take care of our sons, and I’ve even learned to bake their favorite birthday cake recipes, just like their mom did for years, as one small but meaningful gesture to keep her close.

Shortly after Claire’s passing, I called her surgeon’s office seeking advice on what I could do to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer and funding for research; I felt a visceral need to make a difference for others suffering from this disease, to honor Claire’s legacy and later, in memory of Claire’s sister, who passed away from pancreatic cancer a few years after Claire did. The surgeon told me about the Lustgarten Foundation, and through my own research, I learned that 100% of every donation funds research—something incredibly rare for a nonprofit organization. I knew a foundation like Lustgarten, whose funded science has been a driving force in every major advancement in pancreatic cancer research, was the perfect place to donate to. I also had fundraised for other worthy causes in the past and could apply that experience and expertise to raising money for pancreatic cancer awareness and research funding.

Prior to my retirement, I worked as a basketball coach at Cumberland Valley High School in Mechanicsburg, PA, and I created an event that paired my love for the game with our community’s love for Claire. The first two years, we held foul shooting contests across the country, where everyone who participated got sponsors to donate money for each foul shot made successfully. I raised $60,000 for Lustgarten through these events. Now, for the past eight years, I’ve organized and led Lustgarten’s Mechanicsburg Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research at Cumberland Valley High School’s Chapman Field and Stadium, and the event attracts 250 participants every year. Through the walk, I have raised nearly $300,000 for the Foundation’s research program to date.

I’m energized by meeting with walkers and their families who have been impacted by pancreatic cancer and who, like me, are focused on doing whatever we can to make sure this disease doesn’t impact any more of our loved ones. It’s also therapeutic for me to be amongst people who I can empathize with because of our shared experience with this horrible disease, and who tell me to please continue leading this walk because it means so much to them.

Before Claire was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I promised to write my autobiography and include my childhood, my time in the Air Force, my positions working for the government (in fact, I met Claire during one of those jobs!), and of course, the many wonderful years I spent with Claire and our family. However, when Claire was diagnosed, I put my manuscript away, instead focusing my energy and attention on caring for her and giving her the best quality of life possible. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, I went back to my manuscript and finished and self-published Family, Faith, and Friends in December 2020. More than anything, this book is for my grandchildren, Milo Joseph and Celeste Rose, so they can get to know their grandmother.

It’s my mission to make sure the world doesn’t forget about this horrible disease. I want people to realize pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States and is on track to become the second-leading cause. I am committed to doing whatever I can to make sure that doesn’t happen, and I welcome you to join me!

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