A Mother’s Dream Fulfilled

Posted On Nov 08, 2023

Topic: Announcement, Hide on Homepage, Real Talk: Survivor, Patient & Family Stories, Your Source for Breaking News & Inspirational Stories
A Mother’s Dream Fulfilled

Lance Kawaguchi

Lance could never have predicted how profoundly his life would change in less than a year. In September 2015, he took his mother, Katherine, on a mother-son trip to Katherine’s dream destination—Austria— where they explored the sights from her favorite movie, The Sound of Music. Less than a year later, instead of organizing their next mother-son vacation, Lance was planning for a future that included just a few more months with her.

In May 2016, Katherine was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Katherine was only 69, otherwise healthy, and had no family history of pancreatic cancer when she was diagnosed. Her cancer was so advanced that doctors gave her just a couple of months to live, and after carefully considering her options, she decided not to pursue treatment. Her goal was to live for five more months to reach her 47th wedding anniversary with Lance’s dad. Lance’s parents chose to focus on the present and stay positive, thankful for each day of their nearly five decades together and determined to make as many memories as they could during the time Katherine had left. Katherine did survive long enough to commemorate her wedding anniversary with Lance’s dad, and knowing it would be their last, it was both a celebratory and heartbreaking moment.

Lance and his mom had always been incredibly close, and that bond grew even stronger following Katherine’s diagnosis, as Lance traveled from his home in London to his parents’ home in Hawaii as often as possible. Shortly before Katherine passed away, she asked Lance for three things: to take care of his dad, to create a better work/life balance for himself and for his family, and to take time to concentrate on social impact and on finding fulfillment through making the world a better place.

Lance realized just how cherished Katherine was to her community when 700 people attended her funeral. Katherine was a teacher for over 40 years and worked with many students with special needs. Several former students attended the funeral and told Lance stories of how they were so grateful to her because her guidance changed the direction of their lives. Hearing just how much his mom had impacted so many people compelled Lance to focus on service to honor his mom’s legacy.

After Katherine’s passing, Lance became very involved with several nonprofits, finding fulfillment as his mother had known he would. In 2021, Lance took a bold risk and left his global banking and finance career. He assumed the role of CEO at the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation in Sydney, uprooting his wife, Lily, and their two sons from London and relocating them to Australia at the height of the pandemic. The Cure Brain Cancer Foundation had eight CEOs in five years, and Lance was determined to turn the organization around, in honor of his mom’s work with children. Under his direction, the foundation became the leading voice for brain cancer research, advocacy, and awareness in Australia with a mission to rapidly improve both brain cancer survival and quality of life for brain cancer patients. To date, the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation has invested $30 million into brain cancer research, including $8 million allocated to bringing GBM AGILE to Australia. “There’s truly nothing more rewarding than working at a cancer nonprofit,” Lance said. “Every dollar raised gives people hope for the next treatment and hope for a better quality of life.”  

In 2022, Lance was named Not-for-Profit Executive of the Year by CEO Magazine, and while he attended an awards ceremony to formally receive his honor, he listened to a motivational speaker talk about his trek to the South Pole. The speaker’s discussion fascinated Lance and sparked an idea that grew into his most ambitious and adventurous journey to date: What if he became the first CEO of a brain cancer foundation to raise a flag for cancer research at the South Pole?

At first, Lance didn’t believe he’d even consider something so outside of his comfort zone; the whole experience couldn’t be further from the sedentary lifestyle the 48-year-old executive led. He hadn’t exercised in more than 20 years, so how could he possibly consider a journey through Antarctica, the most uninhabitable continent? Never one to live in fear, Lance decided he was up to the challenge; in fact, in Lance’s opinion, this undertaking pales in comparison to the brutal experience of living with cancer and the strength, grace, and resilience cancer patients and their families demonstrate daily.

The first step in Lance’s journey—South Pole Trek 4 Cancer—was to research and secure the most skilled team of certified medics and guides specializing in South Pole expeditions. After his team was in place, he embarked on a rigorous training and nutrition program in February 2023, with the trek scheduled to start in December 2023 and end in early January 2024.

As part of his training, Lance exercises twice daily, with a workout routine that includes strenuous endurance activities like dragging tires along the beach, camping, and trekking up mountains. So far he’s gained over 20 pounds of muscle in preparation for the strength he’ll need to complete this journey and in anticipation of the weight he will lose during this expedition. “The two biggest training hurdles so far have been mentally getting myself to finish my training, especially when fatigue and lactic acid set in, and adjusting my nutrition because I’ve tripled my daily caloric intake to gain weight,” Lance noted. “It’s like forcing yourself to eat Thanksgiving dinner, day after day!”

Lance believes the global cancer nonprofit community should work together to push boundaries, effect change, and get treatments for cancer patients who need them most—a message he was honored to share when he served as the first CEO of an Australian nonprofit to ring the opening bell at NASDAQ last year. Now, through his South Pole expedition, he hopes to create a “force multiplier effect” that will compel people worldwide to focus on, and donate to, the fight against all cancers. His vision is to use his expedition to encourage donors to contribute to a cancer charity of their choice. He has selected 23 global charities, spanning five continents, to join in this effort to raise awareness, increase funding, and make a lasting global impact on cancer research. “I’ve learned that every action, no matter the size, can help a non-profit—advocating on social media, donating, volunteering, and organizing and attending events. Each small effort adds up to a cumulative effect,” Lance commented.

The Lustgarten Foundation is the only pancreatic cancer research foundation involved in this expedition. Lance was impressed by the Foundation’s commitment to directing 100% of donations to research and its top rating from GuideStar, a leader in charity watchdog organizations. “Pancreatic cancer is closest to my heart because of my mom,” Lance shared. “There’s not enough funding for pancreatic cancer research, but the Lustgarten Foundation has achieved what no other pancreatic cancer research organization has: directing more than $250 million to research in just 25 years. Lustgarten walks the walk.”

Lance remains motivated by the bravery of cancer patients and the unwavering support of their loved ones. “My body and my mind may hurt through training and throughout this trek, but I will never quit because people with cancer can’t quit.”  

Lance is looking forward to triumphantly planting a flag on the South Pole with the names of these 23 nonprofit partners, including the Lustgarten Foundation, to demonstrate how together we are moving in the same direction for cancer research. He will then celebrate this victory for cancer research and support by returning to Hawaii, where he’ll reunite with his family. “My mom would be so proud that I’m living up to the promise I made to her to change the world for the better.”

Learn more about the South Pole Trek 4 Cancer and how you can get involved in supporting cancer research.

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