January 28, 2020

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.”