Loss sparks mission to raise pancreatic cancer awareness

As I contemplate this season of giving thanks, I realize how much I have to be thankful for. I live in a wonderful community with some of the most generous and giving people I’ve ever been associated with. I have wonderful kids and grandkids who fill my days with joy and friends who continue to lift me up.

November also is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. In May of 2010, my husband Jim Cooper was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer and he lost his battle in January of 2011. 

In those eight months we fought pancreatic cancer, I learned how deadly this cancer is and how little progress has been made in diagnosis and treatment. During his illness, after every test, oncology appointment, chemo treatment and hospital visit, deep inside I would hold onto hope. Hope that he would be the one who would improve with treatment, hope that he could hold on until a viable treatment would be found. 

Sadly, that would not be the case for us. We were very fortunate to have the extremely qualified doctors, hospital staff and home health professionals to guide us as we made this journey. No more driving or flying up the road for chemo treatments. Family and friends are able to receive treatment right here in Homer with the oncology clinic and infusion therapy department at our outstanding hospital. 

Pancreatic cancer has dismal survival rates. More than 50 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer don’t make it past the first year. The five-year survival rate is only 6 percent and there hasn’t been an improvement in survival rates for more than 40 years.

Over the past 30 years there has been a revolution in science and medicine, resulting in increased survival rates for many diseases but, unfortunately, pancreatic cancer has not benefited from these advances because historically there haven’t been enough people who know about it. 

As a result, pancreatic cancer is the only one of the top cancer killers with a five-year survival rate in the single digits. Even more alarming is that the disease is anticipated to move from the fourth to the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States by 2020, and possibly as early as 2015. We must change this. We can.

After my husband passed away, my mission became “raising awareness.” Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre has proclaimed November as Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in the borough and next week Homer Mayor Beth Wythe will be proclaiming November as Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in the city.

I thank our elected officials for helping with awareness. We’ve received amazing support by participating in health fairs, having articles and stories published in our local papers and this year we had a team in Homer’s Relay for Life. We were “Coops PanCan Warriors.” Our team was comprised of our kids, grandkids, friends and high school kids. I can’t begin to describe the energy these youth brought to our event. 

Awareness translates to more research dollars so one day we may have early diagnostic tests and we may even find viable treatment so if my children, grandchildren or friends have to face this diagnosis, they will have a fighting chance to beat this disease. 

Currently pancreatic cancer receives only 2 percent of the funding allocated for cancer research. 

There is a bill before the U.S. Senate called The Recalcitrant Research Cancer Act (formerly known as The Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act). The bill addresses better allocation of funding for pancreatic cancer and other abdominal cancers. The House passed the bill prior to the election and now it’s up to the Senate. I’m pleased that all three of Alaska’s members of Congress already support the Recalcitrant Research Cancer Act and are co-sponsors of the bill.

On Thursday, Nov. 29, we will be wrapping up our month of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness by holding a Purple Light event in the WKFL Park at the corner of Pioneer Avenue and Heath Street from 6 to 6:30 p.m. If you have a family member or friend who is fighting pancreatic cancer or have lost someone to this disease, please call me at 299-1519 so I can be sure to have a purple glow stick reserved for you to honor your loved one. If you’re a community member and want to offer your support, I hope to see you there. 

Now is the time to be a hero in the fight against pancreatic cancer. Please visit www.pancanvision.org to learn more. Together we can make a difference and thanks Homer for helping with awareness through the power of purple.

Kelly Cooper is a Homer resident. She is self-employed, a volunteer, mother and grandmother.