“We are the storm.” 

Posted On Feb 16, 2024

Topic: Announcement, Hide on Homepage, Real Talk: Survivor, Patient & Family Stories, Your Source for Breaking News & Inspirational Stories
“We are the storm.” 

Stefanie Wayco 

On February 2, 2017, Stefanie Wayco and her mom, Rita, discovered that the back pain Rita had been experiencing—which several doctors had attributed to a pulled muscle—was actually a rare type of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The news blindsided and devastated them both; at the time, Rita was only 62, recently retired, and living a busy, active life. Stefanie was well aware of what a pancreatic cancer diagnosis meant; she had lost her paternal grandmother to pancreatic cancer in 2011 and was shocked that this disease could strike her family again.  

Given the low survival rate for inoperable, metastatic pancreatic cancer, at first, Rita’s oncologist recommended palliative care. Rita and Stefanie immediately rejected this recommendation and, undeterred, pleaded with Rita’s oncologist at MD Anderson Cancer Center, a leading institution in the research and treatment of pancreatic cancer, to give her the “strongest chemotherapy he’s got.” Rita’s oncologist  shared in Rita’s determination to do whatever she could to continue living. Rita endured 16 rounds of the most aggressive chemotherapy treatment available, making 18 trips to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, a trip to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, and another trip to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. She emphatically told her oncologist at MD Anderson, “I’m going to be your miracle,” and was convinced she would defy the odds to beat this disease and bring hope to others fighting. She was a true warrior; she never complained, maintained her optimism, and continued to live by her motto: Make three people smile every day. 

Following confirmation of Rita’s diagnosis at MD Anderson, Stefanie’s first call was to the Lustgarten Foundation, to seek advice and resources from two colleagues she knew well from the years she spent volunteering and organizing a team for the New York City Walk in her grandmother’s memory. That spring, those Lustgarten colleagues invited Rita to participate with other survivors in the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the New York City Walk. In April 2017, Rita, Stefanie, and other family and friends joined them in New York City for the occasion. Rita and Stefanie flew directly from MD Anderson in Houston to New York City, making the ribbon-cutting extra special because they had just received the excellent news that the chemotherapy was working and Rita’s tumor had shrunk by 30%. “The Lustgarten Foundation gave my mom so much hope, and during her interview with Lustgarten, she said she never knew that so many people cared about her,” Stefanie shared. “The amount of optimism and positivity at the Walk made it such a memorable experience for us.”  

Stefanie’s relatives, friends, and colleagues donated and walked as members of Team Wayco’s Warriors at the New York City Walk, knowing their contributions would help advance the most promising research. “Every dollar matters. I’ve seen firsthand the cutting-edge Lustgarten-funded research in the laboratories, including the organoids, and this had such a significant impact on my mom and me,” she added. “Seeing research money being put to good use is working; we just need more of it. These researchers are so passionate and dedicated to searching for better treatment for patients and a cure.” 

Stefanie had recently moved back to Atlanta while her mom lived in Pensacola, FL, and despite the five-hour drive between them, Stefanie remained her mother’s advocate and caregiver throughout her illness. She made weekly trips to visit her, prepared her meals and medicine for the week, and served as the point person for doctors’ calls, lab reports, test results, and all details related to managing such a complex diagnosis. Rita became more spiritual throughout her diagnosis. She prayed, meditated, and even tried Reiki healing. But more importantly, Rita stayed active and kept walking; she never stopped walking.  

After eight months, when chemotherapy stopped working, Stefanie and Rita were determined to find another treatment option. Both knew that pancreatic cancer research was on the forefront of great discoveries. Stefanie researched clinical trials but unfortunately, Rita was not eligible for many trials given her rare pancreatic tumor type. Undeterred, Stefanie called clinics and medical institutions across the country and applied on Rita’s behalf. Rita qualified for an immunotherapy trial and Stefanie secured her a spot at Moffitt Cancer Center. Rita endured her last chemotherapy treatment on September 26, 2017, followed by a required six-week break before she would start the immunotherapy trial in November. The week before Rita was set to begin the trial, she was rushed to the hospital with trouble breathing, and a scan revealed that during the six-week “no chemo” break, the cancer had become even more aggressive and spread, eating through an artery. Rita passed away on November 18, 2017, when she was just 63—the same age Stefanie’s grandmother was when she died from pancreatic cancer. 

Stefanie was determined to turn her grief into action, as her mother would have wanted. Given Stefanie’s success as team captain of Wayco’s Warriors at the New York City Walk, the Lustgarten Foundation approached her about starting a walk in her hometown of Atlanta, and she jumped at the chance. “Volunteering with the Lustgarten Foundation is my outlet, and I’d be lost without it. I was able to turn my pain into my passion. I love connecting patients and their families with survivors and hope,” she shared. 

“Beating this disease requires providing researchers and doctors with the tools to continue making discoveries. For the fighter, it takes incredible strength, the unwavering support of family and friends, prayer, and miracles. Lustgarten is a leader in this fight, and I’m so grateful for all they do to advance research, and I’m honored to play a part in their fundraising and awareness-building efforts,” Stefanie added. 

Now in its seventh year, the Atlanta event annually attracts more than 300 participants and several dedicated sponsors, including national law firms, local businesses, and local sports teams, as well as a partnership with Northside Hospital Cancer Institute. The Atlanta Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research has transformed into a timed and USTAF-certified 5K race on the track at the Porsche Experience Center. “I am committed to being a resource for families. A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is devastating and can be incredibly difficult to understand and navigate. Watching families transform from feeling helpless to having hope is all the inspiration I need to keep doing this event. I truly, deeply care about every single survivor and stay in touch with them and their families.” On race day, you will often see Stefanie out on the track alongside the survivors, reminding them that they are warriors or high-fiving and hugging participants when they cross the finish line.  

Stefanie shared, “When my mom was diagnosed, she said ‘the devil whispered in my ear, there’s a storm coming and I whispered back, I AM THE STORM.’ I know my mom is present every year at the event because we have experienced a gust of wind out of nowhere on a beautiful day or a literal storm.”  

Stefanie has been involved with Lustgarten since 2011, and through her concerted fundraising efforts, has helped raise $500,000 for the Lustgarten Foundation’s research program. “It is so easy to get depressed, give up, and give in, but now’s the time for doing the exact opposite,” Stefanie continued. “I know my mom and grandmother would both be proud and tell me not to stop fighting for a cure for pancreatic cancer because together, WE ARE THE STORM.” 

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