My dad, Juan Gutierrez, was diagnosed in September 2005 with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. The disease was fast and furious: he died 6 months later.
After he died, I was desperate to find help, to fundraise, to change, to feel better (did Kubler-Ross have a stage for that feeling?). That’s when I discovered PurpleStride New Jersey, a 5K walk to support research for pancreatic cancer.
I first participated in the walk in 2009. My team was made up of four members—my husband, my two young children, and me. Dressed in all purple that cold November day, we made our way out to the Mack-Cali business zone in Parsippany. I was overwhelmed when I got out of the car and saw an ocean of purple shirts, pants, balloons and streamers.
It took me almost 10 minutes of deep, cleansing breaths to make it from the parking lot to the main stage. I was with a bunch of strangers who only had one crappy thing in common: pancreatic cancer. But throughout the day, we all exchanged kind, empathetic looks. I hugged and held hands with people I had never seen before and who had an understanding—a real understanding—of what I had witnessed during my father’s illness and death. It was like these strangers knew the sad secret of his quick deterioration and saw the pain that his decline and death caused my family and me.
The walk was the longest five kilometers of my life, but at the end it felt so good—not just because I was raising money for research, but because I knew some of that money would also go to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PANCAN), which supports caregivers while they are helping their loved ones suffer through a program called PALS (Patient and Liaison Services). To me, that is the most important part of what PANCAN does. When my father was diagnosed, my family was totally lost. What is the pancreas? Can’t you just get rid of the tumor? He’s too old? It’s metastasized?
I wish we had known about PANCAN back then. While we had support from family, friends, community and different religious groups, a program like PALS would have helped my mom on those nights she felt utterly desperate, or when we tried to explain to my dad what clinical trials were, or when we wanted to bang our heads against the wall because that Google search told us what was going to occur and how fast it would happen.
A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is almost always a death sentence. It is estimated that pancreatic cancer will be the second leading cause of death by the year 2020. Currently, and for the last 40 years, the five-year survival rate for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer is six percent. Six!
When I participated in my second PurpleStride walk, my team got bigger. Team “El Jefe” now included my brother, sister-in-law, my nephews and my mom (who has never owned a pair of proper sneakers in her life!). With her husband of 40 years looking down on her, she mustered up the courage and strength to walk in his honor, wearing his jeans and a T-shirt with a picture of him playing his beloved conga drum.
Last year, PurpleStride was cancelled because of Sandy. My house was without power for 10 days, but I threw my shoes on and ran five kilometers. I had raised a lot of money for the race and dad would have said “you need to keep up your end of the bargain.”
This year, my team will once again participate in the race in Parsippany. If you drive by my house in Bloomfield, you’ll see a sign saying that I have surpassed my initial fundraising goal of $1,000. I hope to get in the top ten by raising $3,000.
My story is not much different than that of families affected by breast cancer, autism or heart disease. We got hit hard, felt hopeless and managed to find the “chutzpah” to be advocates for a cause we find very important and helps us honor my dad. For years, my family and I would get together for my dad’s birthday and for the anniversary of his death, but because “life happens” we couldn’t always make it work. But now, every November, right after my father’s most beloved first grandson celebrates a birthday (the only grandson he met), we always come together to celebrate his spirit, his life and his death with about 1,500 other people raising money to support PANCAN. It’s our yearly ritual for our “El Jefe.”
Gutierrez-Navarro works as a social worker on a Child Study Team, lives in Bloomfield with her husband and three kids, and tries to maintain sanity while doing it all.