Seeing Purple


Pursuing a Cure For Pancreatic Cancer at the PurpleStride Walk

Purple will be the color of the day on Sept. 21, when hundreds of walkers, runners, supporters and cancer survivors gather at the Regional Sports Center at University Center Rochester. It’s not a fashion statement; it’s a rallying color against pancreatic cancer.

Tens of thousands of lives each year are devastated by cancer of the pancreas: 73 percent of patients die within a year of diagnosis and only about 6 percent survive for five years.

It is seldom detected in its early stages because it often grows without obvious symptoms and its location in the body can hide the cancer from routine body scans, making it one of the most challenging cancers to treat. Yet, it is the most under-funded, under-recognized and least-studied of all major cancer killers.

A group in Rochester is working to change that.


The fourth annual PurpleStride walk Rochester is one of many fundraisers nationwide to benefit the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, a national charity based out of Los Angeles which has awarded $17.6 million in medical research grants to study the disease since 2003. It also lobbies for government funding and raises awareness.

“Last year we had close to 900 people [participating],” says Kim Downs, a Rochester volunteer for Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, who coordinates the local event.

Participants can stride along either a 1-mile or a 3-mile (5-kilometer) course circling through the campus and nearby neighborhoods and are welcome to race or take their time crossing the finish line.

Teams such as “Diamond’s Dashers,” “Theresa’s Angels” and “Rootin’ for Roger” raise money for PurpleStride each year. Last year the event raised nearly $72,000.

“My goal this year is six figures [$100,000],” says Downs, who learned about pancreatic cancer’s grim odds firsthand when her mother was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2008.

“When she was diagnosed, it was a lost cause; it really was,” Downs recalls.

Her mother was expected to live six months or less. With chemotherapy and radiation, she lived another 18 months before succumbing.

“We were given time,” adds Downs, who has faced her own battle with cancer but whose experience was far different from her mother’s.

“I was given so many options [for treatment] as a breast cancer patient,” she says. “It frustrated me that Mom had very little to no options. If I can eliminate that pain for other families, then my time [working with the cancer network] is well spent.”


Not many people are grateful for persistent diarrhea and digestive disorder, but Fritz Breitenbach feels lucky. The 58-year-old Rochester man today is a 4-year survivor of pancreatic cancer because his digestive system malfunctioned. He remembers his physician saying he was “lucky that [his] cancer presented the way that it did.”

Breitenbach had gone to the doctor after being disturbed by two weeks of digestive problems. A computerized tomography [CT] scan finally found a tumor.

“It had plugged the duct at the head [end] of the pancreas,” Breitenbach recalls.

The crucial enzymes couldn’t drain from the organ, so he underwent a surgery called the Whipple Procedure to remove the tumor, part of the pancreas and nearby organs and restore digestion. After eight months of recovery, Breitenbach was able to return to work and has been in remission since.

Sharon Nagel, a 58-year-old Stewartville woman, is now 11 years past her bout with pancreatic cancer.

“Mine was caught very, very early,” she says.

Unlike Breitenbach, she experienced no symptoms. Physicians found her cancer when routine medical tests reflected elevated liver enzymes and a follow-up CT scan revealed a small tumor in the bile duct where the pancreas drains.

“I went from doing great to a Whipple surgery—not knowing what they were going to find—in a week,” recalls Nagel, who has worked 39 years for the Mayo Clinic. The quick surgery has been a long-lasting success.

“It’s not that you don’t fear it [cancer] every day,” she says, “but actually I’m considered very much a survivor.”

Both Nagel and Breitenbach are volunteer organizers working with Downs on PurpleStride Rochester.

“I really have a sense of needing to give back,” Breitenbach says. “You know there are so many people that wish that their outcome was as good as mine, and the reality is, it’s usually not the case.”


DATE: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013

REGISTRATION BEGINS: 7:30 a.m. (or online until Sept. 18)


RUN/WALK START: 9:00 a.m.


ENTRY FEES IN ADVANCE: $25 for adults, $10 for ages 3-12

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit; click on “Find an Event” then click on Minnesota on the U.S. map and go to the Rochester event


Located behind the lower end of the stomach, the pancreas is the body’s main factory for enzymes that break down foods into proteins, fats and carbohydrates used by our bodies. It also secretes some hormones, including insulin, which are vital for assimilating sugar. The organ largely contains glands that make the fluids and tiny ducts that allow them to flow into the body.


Cancerous cells often originate in the tissues that line the ducts of the pancreas. Rare are cells in hormone-producing glands.

Prevalence: The American Cancer Society estimates more than 45,200 people will contract the disease this year and 38,400 patients will die from its effects.

Symptoms: Typically none in early stages. In later stages: Upper abdominal pain that can radiate to the back; jaundice; loss of appetite and weight; blood clots.

Causes: No clearly established cause known.

Some risk factors: Overweight or obese condition; diabetes; family history of pancreatic cancer; smoking; African-American descent.

Treatments: Surgery, if confined to pancreas; radiation therapy; chemotherapy; targeted drug therapy.

Current status: “Pancreatic cancer often has poor prognosis, even when detected early,” Mayo Clinic reports. It spreads rapidly and surgery often is not possible.

Source: Mayo Clinic