The ‘Would’ve Been’ Life 

Posted On Mar 01, 2024

Topic: Announcement, Hide on Homepage, Real Talk: Survivor, Patient & Family Stories, Your Source for Breaking News & Inspirational Stories
The ‘Would’ve Been’ Life 

Rachel Weiss 

Rachel Weiss’ father Ross was the quintessential “girl dad.” After raising two sons during his first marriage, he was overjoyed to welcome a baby girl with his second wife. He attended all of Rachel’s dance rehearsals and recitals, concerts, and soccer games, and despite her parents’ separation when she was a preschooler, Ross remained fully involved in her life and spent as much quality time with her as possible. “Being my dad’s daughter was magic; he never gave less than 100% to me,” Rachel lovingly remembers. 

When Rachel was in elementary school, Ross started experiencing intermittent low-grade fevers, lower back pain, stomach aches, side pain, and later, trouble breathing. After several years of suffering, in 1999 Ross became determined to figure out the cause of these symptoms. He consulted nearly 20 doctors and tried a variety of treatments, but nothing worked. In September 2000, Ross, 58, received the most unimaginable news: he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, at a time when the five-year survival rate was abysmally low in the single digits. Rachel was only 12.  

Given her age, Rachel was the last family member to learn of her dad’s diagnosis. In September, Rachel found an email on her dad’s computer from her Uncle Harvey, telling Ross he was praying for him always and that he found the Lustgarten Foundation online and knew the organization would be a tremendous help. Confused and overwhelmed by fear, Rachel researched what the Lustgarten Foundation was, and terrified, she started interviewing her dad about his symptoms. He insisted he just had an abscess, and Rachel was too frightened to admit she had seen her uncle’s email. Shortly after, Ross fell into a wall in front of Rachel—an accident brought on by an incredibly low blood count caused by his cancer. After calming Rachel down, Ross broke the devastating news of his diagnosis but assured her he would fight as hard as possible to beat this disease, and Rachel knew he would. Rachel was heartbroken; her dad was relatively young, an otherwise healthy and athletic person, and the center of her world, so how could he possibly have a life-threatening disease? Weren’t dads like hers supposed to be invincible? 

Ross underwent chemotherapy treatment throughout October and November 2000 and relied on the Lustgarten Foundation to help him through his diagnosis. “The Lustgarten Foundation was my dad’s source of hope and his lifeline the entire time he was sick,” Rachel shared. She recalled how Ross’ whole blended, extended family gathered for his final Thanksgiving, a beautiful yet bittersweet moment. After Thanksgiving, he was admitted to the hospital and returned home in January for hospice care. He passed away shortly after, just six weeks before Rachel’s Bat Mitzvah. It was surreal to Rachel to experience such a critical life milestone without her dad. “My dad was the best dad I could’ve asked for, and it was traumatic to lose him when I was only 12, at such a pivotal time in my life. I felt tremendous guilt when Dad died, and I worried he didn’t know how much I loved him,” Rachel said. “It took me until the last couple of years to even process the trauma of it all.” 

It’s been more than two decades since Ross passed away, and Rachel has never stopped missing him. She earned her graduate degree and lived in several cities across the country working for multiple corporations, which she knows would have made her father very proud. “I never make an important decision without talking to my favorite picture of Dad; I never want to leave him out, and I just wish we had the chance to know each other as adults and for him to teach me so many more life lessons,” Rachel said. To keep him close, she wears a bracelet with the saying “Be happy” because when Rachel’s mom asked Ross what he wanted her to do for Rachel after his passing, he answered that all he wanted was for her to be happy. 

Happiness eluded Rachel for a long time and was replaced with pain and anxiety that led to an alcohol addiction. Her drinking reached a dangerous level in 2022, but with the help of her family and an addiction therapist, she will celebrate two years of sobriety this spring. As part of her sobriety journey, she made the conscious choice to channel her energy into confronting her loss, rather than feeling victimized and defined by it. “My whole life just stopped before I even had the chance to take off. I constantly think about the ‘would’ve been life’ I would have lived if my father hadn’t passed away,” Rachel shared. 

Rachel also took other steps toward fulfillment after facing her addiction, while reflecting on lessons about strength and bravery that she learned from her dad. She trained to become a volunteer grief facilitator to help family members cope when a parent or a child passes away at home like her father did. As she worked to get sober, running became her solace, her joy, her chance to work through challenges, and her time to think about her dad. She started a running club focused on sobriety to help her build a community around a shared interest. “I want people to know that while I suffered the unbearable loss of my dad, I’ve now developed a beautiful and meaningful life for myself going forward.” 

Becoming involved with the Lustgarten Foundation has been cathartic and integral to Rachel’s healing process as well. Because of the significant impact the Foundation had on her dad, she has participated in a couple of the Foundation’s Walks for Research. “I’m so grateful that Lustgarten allocates 100% of every donation to research, and I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help increase pancreatic cancer awareness and research funding.”   

This year, she’s stepping up her support by joining Team Lustgarten for the United Airlines New York City Half Marathon on Sunday, March 17. Rachel is fulfilling her father’s dream of running a marathon through his hometown of New York City, while family members and friends encourage and cheer her on from the sidelines. She follows a strict training regimen consisting of running outdoors, practicing Pilates, running on a treadmill, and performing other exercises to build her strength and stamina for the race. She has raised nearly $2,000 for the Lustgarten Foundation, and that’s with a few weeks left to go before the race!  

“From the bottom of my heart, from little 12-year-old Rachel who had her world turned upside down by my dad’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis—I have so much gratitude for everyone who supports the Lustgarten Foundation through donating, participating in events, volunteering, and spreading awareness, and I know my dad would have greatly appreciated the support too. To everyone in the Lustgarten community, thank you for changing lives.” 

Learn more about Rachel’s participation in the United Airlines New York City Half Marathon. 

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