Pancreatic Cancer Challenge: Know it. Fight it. End it.
Please take a moment and send Congress an urgent message to increase funding for pancreatic cancer research by filling out the form here.
Carmen recently sent me this “Take Action Now” message from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (pancan.org).
Pancreatic cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. Every day there are approximately 116 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. More than 35,000 people will die from pancreatic cancer this year. The five-year survival rate is only 5%.
Carmen’s husband, George Ledbetter, lost his fight with pancreatic cancer on November 9, 2007. He was a very dear friend and is still very much in my thoughts. Only 56 when he died, George rose to the rank of full-colonel during his U.S. Air Force career, and had retired from that service some two years before his death.
He was brilliant and witty, and filled to the brim with stories of his career as a military attorney. Some of his stories Carmen deemed “not quite appropriate for mixed company,” but he always responded to our pleas for him to “tell it anyway.” He was completely enamored with the world of finance, and when he retired he began studying to become a financial adviser. However, he was never sure whether he would pursue that profession on completion of the intense course.
George was a familiar sight to the staff at a local McDonald’s restaurant. He spent several hours there every morning, eating breakfast and drinking coffee, with his workbooks and notepads spread over a table for four.
One of my favorite memories of George—and one of the stories I love to tell about him—occurred on a trip Michael and I made to the Green Valley Book Fair, one of our favorite day trips. We invited George and Carmen to go, and while en route our conversation turned to this question: “What would you do if you won ten million dollars?”
We each offered up a variety of plans, items such as “pay off all my bills, buy a house in the mountains, or on a lake or on the beach, travel the world, build a giant studio in a barn, save the animals (insert species here), fund animal rescue leagues, etc.” George, usually the last to respond in such conversations remained quiet, listening closely while forming his answer.
Finally I said, “George, what would you do if you won ten million dollars?” His answer was ready, and he immediately launched into all the ills that would befall one in such a situation—how much the government would skim off the top, how much interest the money would gain if one didn’t spend any of it, what tax bracket it would throw one into, how it couldn’t possibly solve all of one’s financial problems, and how friends, ones that one didn’t know one had, would come out of the woodwork to claim their piece of the pie! I responded, “Gee, George, ya really know how to kill a fantasy, don’t cha?”
Michael says he thinks about George every day, primarily because George taught him a stretch exercise to avoid foot pain caused by a shortening of the Achilles tendon. Michael has done this stretch faithfully every morning since learning the exercise.
After Carmen retired she embarked on a new career, and she and George moved into a beautiful home in South Carolina. Restless in retirement, George returned to Alexandria every chance he got, frequently by agreeing to babysit a friend’s dogs whenever she was out of town. During those solo visits we continued meeting frequently for lunch. His favorite restaurants were Ruby Tuesday and Roy Rogers, and while there he would offer up firm opinions and lengthy diatribes, give sage advice and voice acute observations on a variety of topics—everything from politics to finances, and from celebrities to neighborhood gossip.
George was a consummate conversationalist—no topic was taboo, no subject uninteresting and no angle unexamined. He had what we felt was an unwarranted fear of health problems—George was physically fit and took daily walks, but his fears concerning his health were always present in our conversations. His greatest fear was that of developing diabetes, a condition that was prevalent in his family.
We found it very sad and ironic that he would ultimately be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a devastating and incurable disease which usually strikes without warning—those afflicted rarely see it coming.
I shot the photos above at our Second Annual Pesto Fest in 2006. They show George and his wife Carmen toasting, George in uniform for his retirement ceremony, and George with Angus, his beloved Cocker Spaniel.
Famous people who had pancreatic cancer:
Actor/director Michael Landon, age 55 (1936 — 1991)
Actor Patrick Swayze, age 57 (1952 — 2009)
Professor Randy Pausch, age 48 (1960 — 2008)
Operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti, age 71 (1935 — 2007)
Actor Joan Crawford, age 72 (1905 — 1977)
Composer Henry Mancini, age 70 (1924 — 1994
Actor Juliette Prowse, age 58 (1936 — 1996)
In an article I read on www.medicine.net, Gagandeep Singh, MD, director of hepatobiliary and pancreatic surgery at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., and a spokesman for PanCan, reported, “Pancreatic cancer is almost equal in its incidence in men and women, so sex is not a factor. It occurs most often in patients about the age of 60 through 65, so at age 55, Patrick Swayze is young. The youngest patient I have ever treated was 21 and the oldest was 86, so there is a spectrum.”
In answer to the question, “Does pancreatic cancer run in families?” Singh replied: “Yes. About 10% to 15% of these cancers do have a genetic or familial predisposition. In fact, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was the only person in his family who did not have pancreatic cancer. His mother, father, and all of his siblings had pancreatic cancer. We do know that there are certain genes that may be linked to pancreatic cancer.”