Heartbreak and Hope
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At just 23 years old, Sydney Weinberg is uniquely aware of both the heartbreak and the hope for survival that accompany a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. She lost her grandfather, his sister and Sydney’s great-aunt to the disease, cautiously celebrates her uncle’s journey as a survivor, and experiences the “scanxiety” her family members feel every time they undergo monitoring for signs of the disease that plagues their family.
Sydney’s grandfather was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in August 2010. He exercised regularly and followed a healthy diet, so his diagnosis was an unbelievable shock to his family. Sydney had a special relationship with her grandfather—when she was a child, he would make the three-hour round-trip drive from Long Island to Westchester County, New York, every Saturday to babysit her, and as his oldest grandchild, they shared a special bond. When he got sick, their family spent a lot of time with him reminiscing about the past, creating new memories, and silently praying for his recovery. They never lost sight that he was still the same person and refused to define him by his illness.
“I’m so grateful I spent so much time with my grandpa in the hospital, and I will cherish the six months we had together before he passed away,” Sydney shared. “Even at his sickest, my grandpa always put on a brave face and never wanted to dwell on his diagnosis. He would be here telling these stories now if he could’ve been diagnosed sooner.”
Pancreatic cancer devastated the Weinberg family again when Sydney’s great-aunt Gloria, her grandfather’s sister and a breast cancer survivor, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The disease was advanced, and she passed away shortly after diagnosis. Both Sydney’s grandfather and her great-aunt had tested negative for genetic mutations including BRCA, which increases the risk for pancreatic cancer. Yet, Sydney began to feel uneasy and afraid that pancreatic cancer would continue to impact her family.
Unfortunately, Sydney’s worst fear came true. In 2021, during her uncle’s routine colonoscopy, doctors discovered pancreatic cancer that hadn’t metastasized yet. Even though he was unbelievably lucky the disease was found at Stage I—which occurs in only 12% of pancreatic cancer patients in the United States—he still needed to complete six months of intensive chemotherapy and then underwent a complicated surgery to excise the remaining cancer. Due to the tumor’s location in the pancreas, a complete removal of the pancreas was the only option, which immediately caused him to become diabetic. In retrospect, he thought his symptoms were a result of a busy lifestyle, not anything related to pancreatic cancer, and he’s so thankful for his colonoscopy—a procedure that was initially postponed. After two heartbreaking losses in the Weinberg family, Sydney feels incredibly blessed that her uncle is a survivor. Currently, he shows no evidence of disease and continues to undergo periodic monitoring. He is back to living a full life with his family and leading his dermatology practice in New York City.
Given these three relatives are all on her father’s side, Sydney’s dad is proactively doing everything possible to ensure that he does not fall victim to this terrible disease, as well. As a result of their experiences with pancreatic cancer, Sydney and her family members are now more health conscious; while they can’t control a genetic predisposition, they are committed to exercising, eating a well-balanced diet, managing stress, and getting adequate rest to help decrease their chances of getting pancreatic cancer. And, in the meantime, they remain hopeful that scientists will soon discover the genetic mutation predisposing their family, and countless others, to this disease.
Watching pancreatic cancer wreak havoc on her family has profoundly impacted what matters most to Sydney today, and that includes doing everything possible to help researchers find a way to identify the disease earlier so more lives will be saved. “It’s so important to advocate for your health; be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease,” she said. “I’m so passionate about early detection and the genetic link to pancreatic cancer because there’s a chance to survive this disease, and we need to make sure more people have outcomes like my uncle.”
To help draw attention to pancreatic cancer, Sydney’s family got involved with the Lustgarten Foundation, participating in both the Westchester Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research and the National Neighborhood Walk for Research held during the pandemic. Now, she is training for her most meaningful physical challenge yet—participating in the Brooklynite Half Marathon on Sunday, August 13 to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer research and funding for the Lustgarten Foundation’s early detection research program. She is committed to celebrating her uncle, honoring her grandfather and great-aunt’s legacies, and shining a spotlight on the urgent need for new early detection and treatment discoveries, so thousands of other patients become survivors like her uncle.
Sydney is extremely grateful to everyone who cares about this disease and who is involved in helping families struggling with the physical, financial, and emotional burdens of pancreatic cancer. “We need to come together as a community to create substantial change, and I am so thankful for the very passionate people who care and who show up for this disease. Together with the Lustgarten Foundation, I’m confident that critical, life-changing developments in early detection will be available soon. I owe it to my family to make these advancements possible.”