Growing up, the Keil household was always filled with plenty of laughter.
With two parents blessed with a keen sense of humor, Beachwood resident Sarah Keil Chernoff could always come back to her New Jersey home for a good chuckle and a laid-back environment.
So when Sarah’s father, Gordon, called a formal family meeting for her and her siblings late last year, she knew something wasn’t right.
“We didn’t usually have serious conversations like that,” said Chernoff, whose mother, Wendy, had just survived a three-year battle with breast cancer. “My parents have always been very honest with us and told us what was going on. Obviously, it was upsetting.”
Eventually, the family learned that Wendy had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, leaving them startled but determined to do anything possible to defeat this relentless opponent that has a survival rate in the single digits.
Chernoff is expected to be among more than 1,100 people clad in purple for the 11th Annual PurpleStride Cleveland Run/Walk June 18 at the Cleveland Metropark Zoo. The event, which starts with a 7 a.m. registration, will benefit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (www.pancan.org), which is a national organization creating hope in a comprehensive way through research, patient support, community outreach and advocacy for a cure for the disease.
Wendy’s diagnosis came following a wave of positive news. Chernoff had given birth to her first son, Brody, in October, and her brother, Adam, was married in November. The family was also relishing Wendy’s recent remission of breast cancer after a diagnosis in 2007.
“It was definitely a period of happiness,” Chernoff said. “Brody brings her such joy. It’s wonderful for everyone to see my mother with him.”
Shortly after the wedding, things changed. With her breast cancer in remission, Wendy experienced some abdominal discomfort – a sign that something was wrong. Wendy’s six-month checkup revealed unusually high tumor markers in her blood, indicating the cancer had reappeared. She went for a scan and learned that she had developed Stage IV pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver.
“I was in a state of shock,” said Wendy, who lost a close friend to the disease about seven years earlier. “When I found out I had breast cancer, I figured I liked pink and I liked doing the walks. But when I learned I had pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t get rid of the image of her never having a good day. I lived day to day with her dying on her 51st birthday, and it was difficult to watch.”
So many others have faced a similar, daunting battle with the disease. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in the United States. In 2010, more than 43,000 people were diagnosed with the disease and nearly 37,000 died from the disease. Only about 6 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive longer than five years. There is no early detection method or effective treatment, and it is the most under-funded, under-recognized and least-studied of all major cancer killers, with only 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s annual budget dedicated to pancreatic cancer research.
Like many diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Wendy isn’t sure how she found herself in this position. Smokers do represent a higher risk group. Wendy’s father, who died of emphysema, was a smoker throughout his life and exposed his family to second-hand smoke, but Wendy never took a puff of a cigarette.
Environmental factors could have played a part, but that is also uncertain. One growing area of research has shown a link between Ashkenazi Jews and the disease. After asking around, Wendy, an Ashkenazi Jew, learned that her father’s uncle and cousin had pancreatic cancer. With 10 percent of all cases found to have a hereditary component, that factor seems to have been the most likely possibility.
But Wendy doesn’t dwell on the “why.” She’s more focused on the “what” – as in what needs to be done to give hope to others.
With Chernoff doing her part in Ohio with PurpleStride, her mom continues her crusade on the East Coast. On June 14, the pancreatic cancer survivor will be joining about 600 other volunteers from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in Washington, D.C., to for the group’s fifth annual Advocacy Day. Wendy will meet with members of Congress to support increased pancreatic cancer research funding and ask them to co-sponsor the Pancreatic Cancer Research & Education Act (S. 362/ H.R. 733) to spur true progress in fighting the disease.
Once again the selfless Wendy finds herself in the position of worrying more about others and less about herself. She has participated in about 20 cancer-related events from Relay for Life to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure walk. Last month, she had about 130 supporters as part of her “Walking for Wendy” team join her in Riverside Park as part of the PurpleStride Manhattan Run/Walk in New York City. Her team raised nearly $70,000, which marks one of the highest totals ever raised by an individual team for a Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-sponsored walk. She is also planning to attend the Second Annual PurpleStride New Jersey walk at the Mack Cali Business Complex in Northern New Jersey on Nov. 6.
During the Cleveland walk, Chernoff will be joined by her husband Mike, who is employed by the Cleveland Indians. The baseball organization will be making a donation on the family’s behalf. Chernoff and her other participants’ T-shirts will include a caricature of Wendy wearing boxing gloves in a fighting stance to show Wendy’s determination in fighting this disease.
“My mom is such a strong person,” Chernoff said. “She’s so amazing – just powering her way through this. She’s very determined and always sets the standard very high.”
Wendy has a mountain of support. The immediate family offers assistance in things like nutrition and nurturing, stepping in whenever she needs a hand.
During the formal meeting, Gordon expected each of his four children and two in-laws to react differently to the news. He told them whatever their response, it was the appropriate one for them to display as unique individuals presented with this type of situation.
From learning of the diagnosis, it’s been typical to Sarah make the trek back to New Jersey and join her family on a more regular basis. Even when they’re not visiting, the children are emailing, text messaging or calling each other, supporting their mother but also each other.
“We were scrambling to do everything at first,” Wendy’s other daughter Heather said. “I guess the best part of the whole situation is that it’s really brought us all much closer together. We were close to begin with, but now we know we need to be there for each other.”
Wendy tries to maintain a normal schedule, driving to work as a fundraiser for the Jewish National Fund. She appreciates the support of her employer, which allows her to go to chemotherapy treatments and other physician appointments. The job keeps her out of the house and mind off of her health issues while helping her maintain insurance benefits to cover the cost of her potentially burdensome medical expenses.
“It’s easy to lie in bed all day and do nothing,” said Wendy, who takes about nine pills a day in addition to chemotherapy and two shots a week. “But I love the job and I love the state of Israel. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Once an active athlete who enjoyed riding bicycles and playing tennis – even winning some tournaments at her local club, Wendy said the disease has robbed her of many of her passions. She is looking forward to a trip to Wimbledon in late June but is apprehensive about how she will feel. The trip comes on one of her typically bad weekends that follow a rigorous chemotherapy treatment of GTX (Gemzar-Taxotere-Xeloda). The regimen has helped stabilize her cancer, which her doctor said may have completely disappeared from her liver.
“It gives me hope but it doesn’t mean it’s gone,” she said. “I’m in good spirits and I’m at peace with it. You just do the best you can to keep going.”
Wendy does find the ability to laugh at what she’s enduring. When she had breast cancer, the treatment caused her to gain weight. The opposite has been true with pancreatic cancer.
“I’ve watched my weight my whole life, but I’ve never had to focus on putting weight on before,” joked Wendy, who has lost 30 pounds (over 20 percent of her body mass) since being diagnosed last year.”
Even with everything she’s been through, Wendy, who turns 60 in August, has one regret. Not surprisingly, it reflects her altruistic roots.
She wishes she was a bone marrow donor.
“I’ve always wanted to save one life,” she said. “If by me being sick, I can save one life, I would be happy with that. I believe this is what I am on earth for. I just have to believe I can beat this, and stay alive to help so many others.”
With all of her family’s hard work and determination, so many others are hoping she is playing a part in saving more than just one life – continuing the mission to help that has carried her to this point. And beyond.
Todd Cohen is the Media Representative for the Northern New Jersey Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. For more information about the PurpleStride Cleveland, click here or email Events Coordinator Megan Graham MGraham@pancanvolunteer.org.