Running to Pave the Path for a Cure
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I was only 11 when my Grandpa Stewart—the charismatic, loving, and enthusiastic backbone of my family and the person who always lit up a room—passed away from pancreatic cancer.
My grandpa was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2009, which devastated my close-knit family. He had no family history of the disease and was incredibly health-conscious and athletic, acting more like someone in his 40s than his mid-60s. He started experiencing stomach pain, weakness, and a loss of energy, and by the time he was diagnosed, his cancer had metastasized. He underwent treatment which included a clinical trial and chemotherapy.
While he was sick, my parents, younger sister, and I traveled to Florida to see him as much as possible, desperate to soak up as much time with him as we could and remain optimistic about his prognosis. He told me he was never hungry because the tumor was causing abdominal pain and the chemotherapy had eliminated is appetite. Since I was just a child, I thought that bringing him a pack of gum would help make up a little for all the joy he was missing out on at my family’s dinner table.
After a few months, we realized he was getting progressively worse, and I will never forget the look on my mom’s panic-stricken face when his doctor called to tell her to get to Florida as quickly as possible because his death was imminent. We frantically drove to the airport in New York, ready to go through security and board the next flight to Miami, when my mom received the gut-wrenching call that my grandfather had passed away. She broke down in tears, right in the middle of the security check at the airport, heartbroken that we didn’t make it there in time to say goodbye and tell him once more in person how much we loved him.
We tried to stay strong, but the flight down to Florida seemed to last forever, each of my family members and I reliving memories of Grandpa Stewart and experiencing so many emotions, from disbelief, to denial, to despair. My parents helped me write his eulogy, and speaking about him at his funeral, in front of everyone who loved him, was one of the most difficult moments of my life. I remember the scene at the cemetery when his casket was lowered to the ground, and how devastating it was to see my mom, such a strong woman and my role model, so vulnerable and distraught as she faced the loss of her dad.
Even though we were grieving, my parents were focused on making a difference and doing something to make sure other families didn’t have to experience the crushing loss we did. We found the Lustgarten Foundation and were immediately drawn to the organization’s innovative approach and its commitment to directing 100% of all donations to research. We began organizing small events like bake sales and donation drives, and we participated in the Foundation’s Westchester, NY Walk for Research. As a teen, I was featured in the Foundation’s public service announcement campaigns, believing I had an obligation to share my story in the hopes that it would touch and help others. Together with a committee of other families impacted by pancreatic cancer, we organized the Race 4 A Cure fundraiser at Grand Prix New York, a family entertainment facility, and held this event for multiple years. We were so grateful for the power and compassion of our community, who came together time after time to fund research, honor survivors, and remember those like my grandpa who had passed away.
Helping my family with fundraising made me realize I could do even more to honor my grandpa’s legacy. A few years after he passed away, I was enrolled in an advanced high school science research course and was determined to be on the front lines of finding a cure and giving patients a better chance for survival and quality of life. I contacted several cancer researchers and in the summer of 2015, I was incredibly fortunate and honored to intern at a lab at the University of Michigan where researchers were studying cancer tumor markers. Grandpa Stewart’s death was such a traumatic experience, but it pushed me to search for answers in the best way possible—through research.
Because I’m so dedicated to this fight, I’m always looking for additional ways to get involved. Last year, my sister ran in the TCS New York City Marathon, and motivated by watching her compete and my desire to challenge myself, I signed up for the 2022 marathon as soon as registration opened. This marathon is the first race I’ve ever participated in, and certainly the first time I’ve run more than 10 miles for fun! I thrive on challenges, and what challenge is more physically and mentally demanding, exhausting and exhilarating than running a marathon? I’m honored to be running and fundraising for Team Lustgarten while several of my family members and friends cheer me on from the sidelines throughout the 26.2 miles on race day. I’m excited to be part of a team so laser-focused on pancreatic cancer research who won’t give up until there are more survivors, no matter how long and how far that journey takes us.
My family and I will never get over losing my grandfather nearly 14 years ago. I’m thankful for the wonderful memories I have of him, even as I continue to mourn all of the milestones in my life he hasn’t been there to celebrate with me, like my high school and college graduations, my first job, and my first apartment in New York City. I’m also grateful to be a part of the Lustgarten community. I’m committed to contributing to pancreatic cancer research because I know every dollar counts and can lead to the next big breakthrough, which couldn’t save my grandpa’s life but will hopefully save someone else’s. This is the legacy that my grandfather would have wanted.