Healing Through Helping
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March 2023 marks two years since Chris—my husband of 25 years and my best friend—passed away from pancreatic cancer. Sometimes the grief is so raw it feels like just yesterday that he died, and other days my family and I are still in shock, and it hasn’t completely sunken in that he’s gone.
Chris was a huge presence—a devoted, involved father to our two children, an avid athlete, the loyal friend everyone wants in his corner, and of course the most loving husband. Everyone who knew him, including his group of five best friends he’d had since elementary school, described him as invincible. In 2021, he started experiencing some back pain, which he attributed to the intensity of his weightlifting routine. After two months of back pain, he suffered from nausea for a couple of weeks, and I insisted we go to the emergency room. The doctor performed a scan and told us it showed nothing concerning. However, that relief was short-lived, as we were incredibly alarmed when the radiologist called the next morning with the life-changing news that no one is ever prepared to hear: You have pancreatic cancer.
We were completely blind-sided and wondered, how could someone who was in such great shape physically, was only 54, and had no family history of the disease be struck with a Stage 4 diagnosis? The days following the diagnosis became a whirlwind of doctors’ appointments and second and third opinions until we decided where Chris would undergo treatment. His doctor prescribed a brutal chemotherapy regimen immediately causing multiple, severe side effects. In fact, the side effects became so debilitating that he had to stop the chemotherapy entirely. He tried so hard to get into a clinical trial, but he unfortunately didn’t qualify for any. He also wasn’t a candidate for surgery because of the way the tumor was wrapped around a critical blood vessel; attempting that type of surgery would have likely killed him.
At the time of Chris’s diagnosis, our daughter, Grace, was a freshman in college and our son, Jake, was a senior in college. We’re an incredibly close-knit family, and for us, there was simply no other option than being completely open and honest with our kids. Jake took a semester off to be home with his dad while he endured treatment and then hospice care. Our children handled the situation very differently. Jake was focused on the survival rates and tangible disease outcomes, whereas Grace, like her dad, was focused on her faith in getting them through this ordeal; she never allowed herself to believe her father wouldn’t beat this disease.
Chris’s group of childhood friends were so dedicated to him that they had a surprise at home after each treatment—balloons on the front porch, KEEP GOING spelled out in huge letters in the backyard, t-shirts with their “Keep Going” slogan, and most touching of all, a photo album with pictures dating back to the second grade when the six of them first met.
The eight months during Chris’ pancreatic cancer journey were surreal. Chris handled his disease with such grace and strength, continuing to be the anchor of our family even as he grew sicker and physically weaker. I was so busy making sure our children were okay and dealing with the roller coaster of events involved with this disease—chemotherapy and oncologist appointments, hospital visits, ICU stays, even a bout with sepsis—that I didn’t take care of myself as well as I should have. I’m so grateful for the family and friends who provided their endless support and love, keeping us both going through this most difficult time of our lives.
After Chris passed away in March 2021, I wanted to focus on helping other families, so they wouldn’t have to endure the crushing grief and loss my family experienced. Chris’s closest friends, three of his siblings, and I brainstormed what we could do to help raise awareness of pancreatic cancer and fundraise for early detection research, since Chris believed early detection could’ve made a significant difference for him. Pancreatic cancer became my focus, and it has been cathartic and uplifting to start Christopher’s Ride, a 5K walk/20-mile bike ride along Kane and McHenry County trails in the Chicago area, held in August. Chris’s brothers Steve and Bill helped spearhead the event, and his sister Sue helped so much, and I couldn’t have organized the event without them. I also am very grateful for the mentorship and compassion of Jennifer Tedrow, walk leader of Lustgarten’s Naperville, IL Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research, who guided me on how to organize a successful event.
In its first year, Christopher’s Ride served as a celebration of Chris’s life, and in the second year, we started the bike ride, as Chris loved to go on charity bike rides and enjoyed many mornings on his road bike. All proceeds benefit the Lustgarten Foundation’s research program, where 100% of every donation funds research. We’re proud to have raised $30,000 so far, with the 3rd annual Christopher’s Ride scheduled for August 19, 2023.
Through Christopher’s Ride, and through my volunteer work for Lustgarten’s Naperville Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research, we keep Chris’s memory alive and honor his legacy. My daughter also finds comfort in volunteering at Lustgarten’s Southwest Florida Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research, which takes place near the university she attends. Leading events and volunteering for the Lustgarten Foundation makes me feel like I’m part of the solution and that even though I’m just one person, I have an obligation to impact the course of this heartbreaking disease. I’m so appreciative of the Foundation’s generous donors and compassionate staff; Lustgarten is the reason people like me, who have suffered the devastating loss of a loved one to pancreatic cancer, have a passion and a purpose helping us to heal.