Hope and Healing after Heartbreak
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Andrew was in his first year of college, and his younger brother Joey was only a first-year student in high school, when their father and role model, Andrew, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was just 59, was in good shape physically, watched what he ate and drank, and had no family history of pancreatic cancer, so this diagnosis came as such an unimaginable shock to their entire family.
Prior to his diagnosis, Andrew’s dad started having spells where he would pass out, and doctors were confident a procedure on his heart would fix the problem. Following the procedure, the fainting episodes decreased, but he started to experience other concerning symptoms, including rapid weight loss, severe fatigue, and black-colored vomit. He was eventually diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; Andrew and his family felt numb and frozen, both by the suddenness of the disease and by the severity of his prognosis. The disease had progressed so far that he wasn’t eligible for Whipple surgery. Instead, he underwent treatment with chemotherapy and radiation. Prior to starting treatment, Andrew’s family threw him a “pre-chemo party” where his closest friends and relatives gathered to celebrate him and shower him with hope and positivity for his fight against this menacing disease.
“My dad was the most selfless and humble man with a relentless work ethic and would’ve given anyone he cared about the shirt off his back and figured out how to stay warm later,” said Andrew. “Watching him go through this diagnosis was unbearable, but also reinforced how resilient, strong, and optimistic he was—all things that I aspire to be. His spirit was unbreakable, and he never gave up hope that he would beat pancreatic cancer.”
Andrew’s dad coped by turning toward his spirituality and faith, reading a positive affirmation and a Bible verse daily. As a family, they coped by spending time together and leaning on each other for support and strength. Every weekend, Andrew traveled home to New Jersey from college in upstate New York to visit his dad and create lasting memories. Andrew’s family was devastated when the chemotherapy didn’t shrink his tumor enough for the Whipple surgery to be an option. They were heartbroken when he stopped responding to treatment altogether and the focus shifted to giving him the best quality of life possible with the time he had left. He survived for 15 months before passing away in 2013 when he was just 60.
The first five years after Andrew’s dad passed away were the most difficult of his life. “You don’t understand grief until you are faced with it, and you have to dig deep as an individual and as a family unit to get through it,” he said. “The shock of losing my dad—one of the most important people in my life—so quickly and so cruelly put me into a rut and was a wound that just couldn’t heal. I sought help and learned to acknowledge and face my grief rather than let it fester, and that’s made all the difference.” Now, Andrew, Joey, and their mom, Donna, can look at family photos, smile as they reminisce about old memories, and be thankful for the time they had together. They are moving forward, just like their dad would have wanted.
June 29, 2023, will mark the 10-year anniversary since his dad’s passing, and to commemorate the day, Andrew ran a 50-mile ultramarathon in Las Vegas on June 17th. The goal of this physical challenge was to raise money for the Lustgarten Foundation to help advance research into earlier detection and new treatments. Every step and mile he ran during this “Running with the Devil” race was in memory of his dad, while also helping to accelerate research progress. To date, Andrew has raised nearly $13,000 for life-changing research through his fundraising page.
Since his dad’s passing, Andrew has discovered how therapeutic running is, and training for this ultramarathon reminds him of the times he spent with his dad playing, watching, and bonding over sports. Several of Andrew’s family members and friends were in Las Vegas to cheer him on at the ultramarathon, although, according to Andrew, this endurance race pales in comparison to his dad’s fight against pancreatic cancer. “Putting the pieces of my life back together and going through one of the worst possible things that could ever happen to me—losing my dad—has stripped away my fear of taking on new challenges like an ultramarathon. Instead, I feel motivated to do whatever I can to raise pancreatic cancer awareness and research funding in his memory.”
Andrew advises anyone interested in starting a fundraiser for the Lustgarten Foundation to have faith in the support of family, friends, and colleagues. “Find something you enjoy and are passionate about, and then incorporate a charitable component to that activity, and you’ll be happily surprised and humbled by the power and generosity of your network.” Andrew is grateful for the unwavering support of his loved ones as he fundraises for better treatments and earlier detection, inspired to be a part of this cause as a way to honor his dad’s legacy.
“This disease transforms the lives of everyone impacted by it,” Andrew shared. “At 29, I feel like I’ve lived three lives already—pre-cancer, during cancer, and grief—and I am now finally able to look forward to and embrace my fourth life and the one my dad would want most for me: healing.”