In 2009, my dad finished his last round of chemo for pancreatic cancer. This Father's Day, we went hiking. It is 2019, and he is cancer free.
I was in high school when he was diagnosed. After his tumor was found incidentally, his oncologist gave us an 11th commandment I'll never forget, "Thou shalt not Google." In those instructions, my teenage mind heard a death sentence that I just couldn't accept. I Googled defiantly and prayed for a miracle.
Many things I feared would never happen have come true since then. He survived long enough to make it to Christmas, and then, my high school graduation. He kept on living, and saw my brother and I both graduate from college. He gave a beautiful toast at my brother’s wedding, and has been a support to me throughout the beginning of my training as a physician-scientist. He is retired and thriving, and spends much of his time cooking, gardening, hiking and sharing his story to empower the pancreatic cancer patient community.
Still, my dad is a miracle case. Between the time when I first Googled the 5-year survival rate to when I learned about pancreatic cancer formally as a medical student, life expectancy has improved only marginally. Of those diagnosed, still only 15-20% are eligible for surgery to remove the tumor. Of those eligible, a subset undergo the grueling treatment regimen against tough odds. Of those patients able to complete the course of treatment, few achieve remission.
Through my own education, I'm beginning to appreciate the sheer magnitude of effort and resources that government, private foundations, industry and providers contribute to improve treatment outcomes. Despite its position as the 4th leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US, the portion of federal cancer research dollars allocated to pancreatic cancer research hovers around 5%. This must be spread to support research from vast domains, from the most basic mechanistic science to clinical trials and population scale investigations. In addition, the aggressive treatment regimen presents monumental challenges to individual patients. Without the help of friends, family, community members, patient advocates and good insurance, my dad couldn’t have even made it to his appointments, much less received the care that saved his life.
The road to a cure is long, but we do not walk it alone. My dad's decade of cancer-free Father's Days are a reminder that we can hope for a day when stories like his become the rule instead of the rarest exception. In celebration of his life, I am running a marathon this November to benefit Project Purple, an organization that invests in the better outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients through funding research and providing support services and financial aid to directly to patients. Please join me in supporting this organization and their important cause.