Fighting cancer: From loss to action


A calming shade of purple punctuates the Manhattan Beach office of the woman who founded the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). In one corner, two teddy bears with purple ribbons add a comforting touch to the “living room” setting where Pamela Acosta Marquardt meets with visitors, staff and supporters. 

Her philosophy — “Dream until your dreams come true” — is painted across her office wall. It’s a way of thinking that has carried Marquardt through a varied professional life that included successful, high-level stints at a chain of West Coast clothing stores and a metal recycling business in Ontario, Calif. 

However, her dreams and her outlook changed in June 1996. That’s when her mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. At that point, all she dreamed about was a way to save her mom.

“[My mother] followed doctors’ orders and, six months to the day after her diagnosis, died,” Marquardt said. “She had never been sick a day in her life and had only been in the hospital to give birth to her three children.”

Still, the odds had been stacked against her — just 6 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive five years, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“When she was diagnosed, I remember the first thought that went through my mind was that this was the disease that took [actor] Michael Landon’s life. He had tremendous resources, and if he couldn’t use them to save his life, how would I be able to save my mother’s?” Marquardt said. “My next logical thought was to go on the Internet to find an organization dealing with pancreatic cancer that would give me guidance on how to save my mother.”

When Marquardt went online, she discovered, to her dismay, that there were no formal organizations that addressed pancreatic cancer. The only thing she could find was a very small online discussion group. Although there were only a dozen people using it to deal with their families’ experiences with the illness, the chat room became a lifeline for Marquardt.

Although talking with compassionate souls about her mother’s condition provided comfort, she also wanted answers. What she found, instead, was a long list of celebrity deaths tied to the disease: Landon, hairstylist Paul Mitchell, composer Henry Mancini, actress Donna Reed and entertainer Jack Benny. She also learned of a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who was having trouble securing funding for his lab and faced the possibility of having to transfer to another institution, and not continuing his work in pancreatic cancer. 

Eventually, Marquardt, 60, of Rancho Cucamonga said she realized she would have to get creative to generate widespread interest to help other families and understand the impact of the disease.

“I [turned to] the history of the AIDS movement for guidance,” she said. “Like AIDS, pancreatic cancer in its own way is a devastating illness not many people wanted to talk about. I found myself inspired in how Elizabeth Taylor took up the cause [of fighting AIDS] and how that changed everything.

“Because there were so many celebrities affected by pancreatic cancer, I came up with this crazy idea to produce a black-tie celebrity gala in Beverly Hills where families who lost their famous members to pancreatic cancer could help spread word among the Hollywood community and other influential people about the need for research, like what needed to be funded at Johns Hopkins.”

The first gala, staged in 1998, raised more than $165,000 and marked an auspicious start to an organization that began in Marquardt’s home. (The most recent one raised $1.1 million.) Its annual “An Evening With the Stars” gala will take place this year on Oct. 19 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

When the organization officially incorporated in February 1999, many of her contacts from the chat room stepped forward to help, while other volunteers came out of the woodwork. One of those volunteers was a young woman just out of college, Julie Fleshman, who lost her father at age 52. Now the president and CEO of the organization, she has built the PanCAN to a staff of more than 100, with its headquarters in Manhattan Beach and an office in Washington, D.C. 

So far, the organization has awarded 94 research grants across the country, and more than 70,000 patients and families have been served through its Patient and Liaison Services program, which provides up-to-date information on treatment options and more. 

Over time, Marquardt, who remains with the organization as director of donor relations, said she was struck by the preponderance of Jewish family names in the chat room and elsewhere. It turns out that the Ashkenazic Jewish population has an increased predisposition to pancreatic cancer because it is more likely to carry mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. 

“[Ashkenazic Jews] need to be keenly aware of everything that goes on in our bodies, and everything happening within our medical communities and families,” Marquardt said. 

Although PanCAN (pancan.org) provides patients and families nationwide with resources and information on various fundraising efforts, the organization still has its work cut out. Marquardt said that the organization’s primary goal is to double the disease’s five-year survival rate by 2020. It hopes to accomplish this by increasing: the number of scientists studying the cancer, the funding available for research, the number of patients enrolled in clinical trials and the participants at PanCAN events.

“My dream was to put the pieces together and figure out a way to pull people together  to help those affected find answers, support and so on,” Marquardt said. “Ultimately, I became a cheerleader for both families affected and everybody else who helped put together everything from the first fundraiser to the organization as it stands today. I am gratified about how so many people ultimately stepped up to the plate to help out.”

Running for life: 52 marathons in 52 weeks


Of all Julie Weiss’ memories of her father, his larger-than-life personality stands out most: Maurice Weiss was a drummer — a regular on the radio by age 5 — a bandleader, a stock broker, and a tennis and racquetball player who took up acting at the ripe age of 70. 

“Everything he did, he did it big,” she recalled recently with a smile and a shake of her long, blond hair. 

Now Weiss is following her father’s lead. To raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, from which her father died in 2010, Weiss is running 52 marathons in 52 weeks and donating the funds she raises to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). Her final race will be the Los Angeles Marathon on March 17. As of Feb. 25, she has raised more than $143,000. 

Her jaw-dropping mission has taken her across the country, and sometimes outside the United States. She has run marathons in Florida, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Colorado and Hawaii, as well as in Toronto and Rome. All of that traveling has been exhausting, she said — not to mention running 26.2 miles every weekend for nearly the past year.

Still, she explained, she is propelled by a bottomless reserve of energy she draws from her cause. 

“My spirits are high because of the fact that I’m helping so many people,” she said.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States, according to PanCAN, an advocacy nonprofit based in Manhattan Beach. The five-year survival rate for the disease is 6 percent. And due in part to a genetic mutation, Ashkenazic Jews — those of Eastern European descent — have an increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer. The defective gene is found in about 1 percent of Ashkenazim, according to a 1997 study published in Nature Genetics. 

Weiss knows this as she ties on her purple ASICS running shoes before every race. Purple is the color of the pancreatic cancer awareness campaign, and Weiss sat down to lunch recently bedecked in its hues — purple beaded earrings, a sparkly purple top, even purple nail polish. 

At 42, Weiss is tall, tanned and lean. She lives in Santa Monica with her fiancé, 19-year-old daughter and her dog, a chow chow-collie mix. She’s still amused by the disbelief she encounters when she talks about her 52-marathon quest. 

“When I first tell people, they’re like, ‘Can you really do that?’ ” she said. “A lot of people think I’m crazy. That’s OK. I’m not crazy — I’m just extremely passionate.”

Weiss didn’t take up running until her mid-30s, and back then it had nothing to do with her present cause. Instead, she recalled, she was overweight and on antidepressants. 

“I was on vacation with my family in Hawaii, and I started running on the beach. When I got home, I didn’t need the medication anymore — I found my love for running,” she said. 

Right away, she knew there was no other way to go but big; for her first event, she competed in the 2007 Los Angeles Triathlon. 

It had been her father’s dream to watch her run in the Boston Marathon. Weiss attempted to qualify 19 times, beginning in 2008, but couldn’t seem to make the time she needed. Her father wasn’t fazed, she said. “Keep going,” she remembers him telling her. “I’m proud of you. You can do it.”

On Weiss’ 18th try, in late 2010, she missed the qualifying mark by two minutes. She was disappointed, but it was nothing compared to the crushing news she would receive the next day: Her father had stage-IV pancreatic cancer. 

Weiss with her father, Maurice Weiss. Photo courtesy of Julie Weiss

She told her father he would fight it. She said he would beat the cancer, just like she would qualify for the Boston Marathon after struggling for so long. But he died 35 days later. 

Less than two weeks after that, she finally qualified for the race. She ran through her grief — and she also set a personal record that she still hasn’t beaten: 3 hours, 47 minutes, 19 seconds. 

“I ran across that finish line with my fingers pointing to him in heaven,” she said. “He was the wind at my back.”

Weiss knew it was the beginning of something, the start of a mission for her to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. 

“I knew it should be centered on my passion for running and my love for my father,” she said. “I’d heard about people running that many marathons, and it seemed like something I could probably do.”

It isn’t only about her father anymore; Weiss dedicates each marathon she runs to someone affected by pancreatic cancer — victims who have died, patients battling the disease and survivors now living cancer-free. 

At the Surf City USA Marathon in Huntington Beach last month, she ran across the finish line with Roberta Luna, an 11-year pancreatic cancer survivor. At the Half Moon Bay International Marathon in September, she ran the last two-tenths of a mile with Paul Perkovic, who had stage-IV pancreatic cancer at the time. He died about three months ago.

“You could see the smile on his face when we crossed the finish line,” Weiss said. “That’s what it’s all about — we created some hope and some joy and inspiration for that moment.”

Her work isn’t going unnoticed. “Julie is truly an inspiration to all those involved in the fight against pancreatic cancer,” said Jenny Isaacson, vice president of community engagement for PanCAN. “Her dedication and passion in honor of her father and all those touched by this devastating disease is remarkable.” 

For the past year, Weiss has kept a strict schedule. During the week, she works full time as an accountant at a commercial real estate company in Brentwood. She leaves work on Friday afternoons, flies to a different city, runs a marathon on Sunday and is back at her desk Monday at 9 a.m. — “9:15 sometimes,” admitted Weiss, whose progress can be followed at marathongoddess.com. 

On the days between marathons, she concentrates on recovery. She stretches every day and does weight training once a week. She goes to bed at 9 p.m. sharp. She eats at least 70 grams of protein daily. 

Over the course of her marathon year, she has gotten to know many people affected by pancreatic cancer — some only in memory. That sense of community keeps her motivated. 

“Every time I run a marathon, I imagine their spirits running with me,” she said. If fatigue sets in, she closes her eyes and imagines them whispering in her ear: “Keep going,” or “It’s OK to walk for a while,” or “I’m with you.”

“No matter how hard that marathon was or how bad I hurt yesterday, it’s nothing compared to what these people are going through,” she said. 

Crossing the finish line for the 52nd time — after a total of 1,362.4 miles — will be an emotional experience, Weiss predicted. “I may have to run with a box of Kleenex,” she said, laughing.

After that, she’ll take at least a month off from running, but she will continue to participate in run/walk events to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer. And there’s a 54-mile ultramarathon in South Africa she’s planning to run in June. 

“It’s in my blood now, and in my spirit,” Weiss said. “I’m so motivated. This is meant to be.”