The Strength of a Warrior
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My mom, Vivian Bernstein, was the epitome of strength, kindness, and empathy. Her parents survived the Holocaust and escaped Czechoslovakia for a new life in Venezuela after World War II. She was ranked the #1 tennis player in Venezuela in the 1960s. In fact, her first date with my father Danny, who she met while she was a student at Tufts University, was at the U.S. Open in New York. Throughout her life, tennis continued to be her passion, and she attended every U.S. Open Tournament from 1974 until she passed away in 2020, sharing her love of the game with my sister Michelle and me.
My mom survived breast cancer when she was 55. Five years later, she started experiencing abdominal pain and weight loss and was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer completely unrelated to the breast cancer. I was in complete shock when she was diagnosed. We were very close and spoke every morning, and hearing this news shattered me. She fought and beat breast cancer, exercised, followed a healthy diet, and had no known genetic mutations that would contribute to her cancers, so how could she be struck by cancer…twice?
This diagnosis truly tested her resolve and her resilience, but my mom had the strength of a warrior and was determined to fight. She immediately took action, researching and consulting with pancreatic cancer experts around the world, and serving as her own health advocate. She chose a leading clinician/researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to spearhead her care.
My mom’s pancreatic cancer was inoperable, so she underwent chemotherapy instead. She did amazingly well on the treatment, experiencing minimal side effects, radiating a positive attitude, and enjoying her quality of life for the next two and a half years. She proactively reached out to the Lustgarten Foundation after she was diagnosed, and soon after, we participated in the Foundation’s New York City Walk for Research, energized by the hopeful spirit of the pancreatic cancer community and proud to support an organization where 100% of every donation funds the most life-changing research.
When the chemotherapy stopped working—as it often does—my mom was switched to a different regimen that also was no match for this unrelenting disease. She became weak during the last two months of her life, and she passed away in November 2020, leaving our family heartbroken, devastated, and without our center. I had learned so much from her about living with grace and fortitude in the face of an insurmountable obstacle. Watching my mom fight this disease taught me to keep life and work in perspective and not to take for granted what is most important—cherished time with loved ones, including my wife and two young sons.
So many people with pancreatic cancer pass away within their first year following diagnosis, but we were blessed to have two years and 10 months with my mom. And, while not nearly enough, I will forever be grateful for this invaluable gift of time. We made the most of every minute, celebrating holidays, birthdays, and other life milestones and experiencing the small joys of everyday life too, together as a family. The gift of time also enabled me to take one last “bucket list” trip with her. We attended the 2019 Wimbledon Championships together, an experience she treasured as a lifelong tennis player and fan, and one I will never forget.
While my mom was sick, I committed myself to raising awareness for pancreatic cancer and funding for pancreatic cancer research so other children wouldn’t have to experience the searing grief of watching a parent or another loved one face this horrible disease. In 2018, I joined Team Lustgarten for the New York City Half Marathon to raise money in my mom’s honor, and in 2019, my sister and I raced together on Team Lustgarten.
Even though I hate running, preparing for the marathon reminded me of how steadfast my mom was. She committed to running the New York City Marathon years earlier to complete another item on her “bucket list.” This feat was even more impressive because she was a breast cancer survivor with absolutely no running experience! I remember the thrill of our entire family cheering her on through the streets of New York City that brisk November morning and being so in awe of her ability to fully embrace life, embark on challenges, and let nothing hold her back. She always viewed life with a glass half full attitude and maintained her positive spirit in difficult times.
In honor of my mother, in recognition of her love for tennis, and in memory of a magnificent life well-lived, I organized the VAB Memorial Charity Tennis Tournament in 2022, and it’s now become an annual springtime event, with all proceeds benefitting the Lustgarten Foundation’s research programs to identify the disease earlier, when more treatments and surgery are possible, and to discover new treatments that give all patients the incredible gift of more time. I’m confident that Lustgarten-funded researchers will continue to lead every promising advancement, and one day research will score and win in the match against pancreatic cancer.