She sat at her kitchen table, distraught, heartbroken, angry. How could her mother be gone so fast? Why weren’t there any resources for families facing this disease? As all the questions, the pain tumbled in her mind, she decided she had to do something, anything to make a difference for others facing pancreatic cancer. Pamela Acosta Marquardt was not going to take this loss lightly – she was going to fight back.
Six months earlier she had sat with her mother’s doctor as he delivered the unsettling news: pancreatic cancer. Naïve to how dire that news really was, Pam asked the doctor when her mother would start treatment. He looked down in awkward silence. That’s when Pam learned her first lesson about pancreatic cancer: the disease is typically diagnosed at a later stage, which means fewer treatment options. She loved her mom, a woman who had grown up in the Depression and had demonstrated strength and tenacity throughout Pam’s life. She couldn’t imagine life without her. But within six months, she had to say good-bye.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
That was in 1996. During her mom’s illness, and after, Pam had turned to the fledgling “world wide web” for answers, but couldn’t find a thing – except a chat room facilitated by a doctor at Johns Hopkins University. That chat room became her lifeline. She also researched anything and everything she could find, and discovered celebrities like Michael Landon (she and her mother were big fans), Donna Reed, Jack Benny, and Joan Crawford had all died from pancreatic cancer.
“I was shocked that all of these really significant celebrities had died from pancreatic cancer and nobody was talking about it. I had watched what had just happened in the AIDS movement, where AIDS had been a very taboo subject. Then all of a sudden Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Magic Johnson stepped up and spoke out about AIDS, and it became the new cause to be involved with. I started connecting the dots, thinking if that can be done for a disease like AIDS, why can’t we appeal to the celebrity world and do something about pancreatic cancer?”
She connected with the online chat room’s host, Dr. Ralph Hruban at Johns Hopkins, who called her. Pam shared, “He said, ‘If you really want to raise money for pancreatic cancer, we have a researcher here who is very interested in studying pancreatic cancer, but no money to fund a lab for him.’ That hit a nerve with me because I thought, ‘Well shoot, if my mother were detected early maybe she would still be alive.’”
BECOMING THE ANSWER
She was determined that her mother’s battle with the disease wouldn’t be in vain. So she asked Dr. Hruban how much they would need to fund a lab. The answer was a bit overwhelming: $400,000 – but with a commitment to raise it all, the lab could get started with just $100,000. Pam had an idea: “I said I will produce a big celebrity gala in Beverly Hills. I’ll invite all the families who lost loved ones, and we will raise $100,000, then we’ll start a foundation to fight this cancer.”
Looking back now, Pam jokes that it’s a good thing she was “too stupid to know certain things couldn’t be done” so she just did them. She connected with others on the chat room, who all said they would pitch in, help with ticket sales, programs, and the silent auction. Pam held the first celebrity gala in November of 1998, and she said, “We ended up netting just over that $100,000, and we got the early detection lab, which is still up and running today, doing amazing work.”
In February of 1999 she officially founded the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and within a year the foundation was able to hire its first full-time executive director, Julie Fleshman, who since 2004 has served as the organization’s president and CEO. Today there are more than 130 full-time staff members at its Manhattan Beach, Calif., headquarters and its small government affairs office in Washington, D.C.
From its volunteer activism and fundraising (hosting PurpleStride Walks across the country and invites volunteers to Wage Hope and get involved), to its government relations (fighting for more federal funding and attention), to its patient and family outreach (the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network offers comprehensive education, resources, clinical trial information and more). The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network is dedicated to its mission of being “a nationwide network of people dedicated to working together to advance research, support patients and create hope for those affected by pancreatic cancer.”
Pam said that from 2003-2016, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network grant investment was more than $35 million, representing 142 grants to 55 institutions. But that’s just the beginning. As the founder and current ambassador, Pam shared the foundation has put a bold stake in the ground: they want to double survival by 2020.
As she looks back over her journey since founding the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Pam has found her own “live sparkly” joy in this effort, which is all a tribute to her mother. She said, “My mom had a really tough life in her early years. For me to do this, to honor her, and to hopefully have her know somehow, someway, that her life really did matter, that so much has come from all this, for me that’s the biggest thing.”
And Pam is eager to pass along that same kind of make-a-difference-joy to her children. “I want them to really truly understand that you have to give back, you have to pay it forward, that one person really can make a difference. I tell them all the time, ‘You might not know how to do something, but if you have a big enough why, there’s tremendous power in your passion and your passion can move mountains.’”
At Origami Owl, we believe in being a Force for Good – and we couldn’t be more proud to have supported the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network with funds raised in 2015 through our Purple Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Ribbon Charm.
With you, we can rewrite the future for pancreatic cancer patients and their families. Let’s Wage Hope together to double survival by 2020. Learn more at www.pancan.org/wagehope.