From the Sky to the Stage to the Search for a Cure

Posted On May 09, 2024

Topic: Hide on Homepage, Hide on News page, Real Talk: Survivor, Patient & Family Stories
From the Sky to the Stage to the Search for a Cure

Madison Marsh

At just 22, Madison Marsh is truly a force—she has founded a nonprofit, graduated from the Air Force Academy with a degree in physics, earned the title of 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, became the first active-duty military officer to win the Miss America pageant, and started pursuing a graduate degree in public policy from Harvard.

The role she is most passionate about, though, is being a staunch advocate for the early detection of pancreatic cancer and raising awareness about, and research funding for, the disease, in memory of her mother. Madison was only 17—a senior in high school—when her mother, Whitney, 41, passed away from pancreatic cancer.

Whitney’s gastrointestinal symptoms began more than a year before her actual diagnosis, and doctors believed she had irritable bowel syndrome. On Christmas Day in 2017, Whitney experienced such excruciating stomach pain and jaundice that she went to the hospital. A scan revealed the devastating news that she had stage 3 pancreatic cancer. The family was completely blindsided; Whitney, who was active, young, and in shape, did not fit the profile of a typical pancreatic cancer patient, and there was no family history of pancreatic cancer.

Whitney resolutely underwent treatment with chemotherapy, radiation, and an oral chemotherapy tablet, an aggressive regimen that shrank her tumor enough that she qualified for a Whipple procedure, which offered the best chance for long-term survival. Shortly before her Whipple, Whitney was forced to stop taking the oral chemotherapy because it was causing cardiac issues. Her cancer then progressed to stage 4, and she received the crushing news that she was no longer a candidate for surgery.

“This experience completely changed my worldview; I transformed from a happy teenager to watching helplessly as I was losing my mother in just a matter of months,” Madison shared. “My sister and I were extremely close to our mom; she was our protector, role model, and best friend, there for every school event, track meet, and competition we participated in, and I didn’t want to acknowledge she might not be there for me to just pick up the phone and call throughout my life.”

The night before Whitney passed away, Madison received a call from her congressman congratulating her on her early admission into the Air Force Academy in Colorado. From the time she was a young girl, Madison wanted to be an astronaut and later, a pilot, and even earned her civilian pilot’s license in high school. Being accepted into the Air Force Academy was a dream come true for Madison, and she was thankful her mom was there to celebrate this first step in her professional journey.

After Whitney died, Madison channeled her grief by continuing her mother’s legacy of service. “One of the most valuable lessons my mom taught me is that when my cup is full, it’s my responsibility to fill other people’s cups. She emulated this selfless dedication to her family and to her community every day in her volunteer work with children in foster homes.”

With her dad and siblings, Madison established the nonprofit Whitney Marsh Foundation to help other families on a similar journey and advocate for funding pancreatic cancer early detection research. In a fitting tribute to Whitney, who loved running, she organized a 5K/10K race on March 19, 2019. The event was a tremendous success, and now, the fifth Whitney’s Race is scheduled for November 9, 2024. “My mom would be amazed that the Whitney Marsh Foundation has grown to 15 volunteers,” Madison shared. “She would be grateful we are garnering attention for a cancer that historically hasn’t received a lot of focus and research spending compared to other cancers.”

Since its inception, Whitney’s Race has raised more than $300,000 for pancreatic cancer research to benefit MD Anderson Cancer Center, where Whitney was treated, and a local hospital in her family’s hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Madison is dedicated to bringing world-class pancreatic cancer research to Arkansas, and her family’s support helped fund an early detection and screening program for patients living below the poverty line. She also is partnering with a hospital to open a cancer center in Fort Smith to centralize diagnosis, treatment, surgery, and recovery all in one building.

“Research and early detection are opening doors to solve the puzzle of cancer, and the Whitney Marsh Foundation is thrilled to be part of this movement. We don’t want this devastating disease to happen to anyone else’s family, and we want to offer a helping hand to honor my mom’s life, in the Arkansas community that meant so much to her.”

In addition to establishing the Whitney Marsh Foundation, Madison discovered another channel for working through her grief during her first year at the Air Force Academy. Madison’s cousin, a pageant winner, inspired her to participate in pageants, and the competitions helped get Madison’s mind off her devastating loss. After winning Miss Colorado in 2023, Madison competed in the Miss America pageant as the first active-duty member of the military to do so. She had the full support and enthusiasm of the Air Force, which made being crowned Miss America in January 2024 even more meaningful.

“Winning Miss America represents a huge opportunity, something bigger than myself, and I am honored to use this unique platform in the hopes of helping even one person facing a pancreatic cancer diagnosis.” Madison is working to both enhance the public’s perception of the military and shine a spotlight on pancreatic cancer, in honor of her mother.

Madison deferred her pilot training to study for a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard, an option the Air Force made possible. She also served as a graduate intern at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute focusing on early detection research and the search for a cure. Now, she is considering bringing potential legislation to Congress to benefit early detection cancer research.

Madison is a staunch believer in getting involved in causes that matter and in making a difference. “I encourage anyone who wants to raise awareness or funding for a cause to start small. Attend an event in your area, fundraise in support of research, volunteer, leverage skills you have, and enlist others to help with events,” she advised. “And of course, please donate. Any amount, from $1 to thousands of
dollars from a big corporation, pushes the needle forward for other families and brings hope and possibilities for a future with better outcomes.”

As Mother’s Day approaches, Madison reflects on how her mom continues to inspire her. “I wish I could have even one more Mother’s Day with my mom. She would give anything to be here with her family and to celebrate not just the significant milestones, like my upcoming wedding, but to enjoy the day-to-day moments with her loved ones.” Madison commemorates the holiday by doing things Whitney loved, like cooking her favorite recipes and making bouquets of fresh flowers. “I miss her every day and recognize that even after five years, I’m still grieving. I also recognize there is so much to love, cherish, and hope for, even after such a monumental loss, and that each day offers an opportunity to make my life happy and to enhance someone else’s life.”

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