October 17, 2019

L.A. Cancer Challenge: Running for lives of others

When thousands of racers line up at the Veterans Affairs grounds in West Los Angeles on Oct. 26, it will be to raise awareness for a devastating type of cancer sometimes linked to mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are more prevalent in Ashkenazi Jews.

But it’s not breast cancer; it’s pancreatic cancer, which this year is projected to take the lives of nearly 40,000 Americans. 

Last year’s L.A. Cancer Challenge (LACC) benefitting the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research attracted 4,000 participants and raised more than $630,000. The goal of this year’s 5K/10K walk/run is to boost that figure to $750,000 or more.

“A huge part of our mission is to unite young and old through physical fitness as a way to create awareness of the disease,” said Lisa Manheim, executive director of the foundation and stepdaughter of the organization’s inspiration, Ron Hirshberg, who died of the disease. “Our event draws a lot of families and is one of the 5K races families will do together. For many of our younger runners, it is their first race and charity event they participate in.” 

The cause is a deadly serious one. Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers — 94 percent of patients die within five years of diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. 

“The frequency of pancreatic cancer is increasing,” said Dr. Howard Reber, distinguished professor of surgery, chief of gastrointestinal surgery and director of the Ronald S. Hirshberg Translational Pancreatic Cancer Research Laboratory at UCLA, which the foundation and annual run help sustain. 

“Right now, pancreatic cancer is ranked the fourth most common cause of death from cancers in the U.S., and in a few years will be the second most common cancer killer. While research and efforts leading to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment expended by scientists and researchers are working well to reduce the numbers of colon, prostate and other cancers, they so far are not yet able to bring the numbers of pancreatic cancer cases down,” he said.

While Manheim and Reber stress their commitment to patients from all backgrounds, the foundation’s signature event holds particularly strong meaning for members of Los Angeles’ Jewish community. Despite the fact that the causes of pancreatic cancer remain unclear, it is documented that 1 percent of Ashkenazi Jews has a defective copy of one of their two BRCA2 genes, which is associated with a three- to 10-fold increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer (not to mention increased risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer). BRCA1 gene mutations may also cause a small increased risk of developing pancreatic cancer, according to foundation officials.

Reber, however, stressed that the risk of cancer to Jews with a defective BRCA2 gene varies in different families, and is also dependent on lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet, the inheritance of other cancer susceptibility genes and a certain element of chance.

The work that Reber and his colleagues at UCLA conduct is a continuation of the vision of Agi Hirshberg. When her husband, Ron, died of pancreatic cancer, she realized there were no major pancreatic cancer centers in the United States. She vowed to take this formidable fight to the next level.

“[Agi] decided to start a definitive pancreatic cancer organization with the rationale that if she couldn’t give to a pancreatic cancer organization, she would start one,” Manheim said. “She chose to partner with UCLA because it was where [her husband] was treated, close to home, and [she] could regularly meet with doctors and researchers. It’s been a wonderful partnership for the last 17 years, and the outcome of the race will hopefully set the course in the years to come.”

Reber said that the money raised by the race allows researchers to do more than just combat medical challenges posed by pancreatic cancer.

“The way the L.A. Cancer Challenge is staged brings into focus families of patients and patients who survived the disease,” he said. Money raised “benefits the patients and their families, who need all the help they can get, not only with medical care but with psychological support and other services beyond medicines and procedures.”

Online registration for the L.A. Cancer Challenge (LACancerChallenge.com) ends Oct. 24. This year’s race will have added features.

“We decided to add on-course entertainment to make the experience more enjoyable for those participating in the race,” Manheim said. “We have two live bands, three on-course DJs, hula dancers, a barber shop quartet and a slew of entertainers to keep up morale.”

Participants can also enjoy the event’s Fit Family Expo, which includes a main stage, Halloween zone and special displays from sponsors emphasizing fitness and maintenance of good health habits.