‘We are here to fight’: Annual PanCAN PurpleStride walk weathers storm for pancreatic cancer awareness

NY: PanCAN PurpleStride
Family members and pancreatic cancer survivors braved the rain and participated in the 2023 PanCAN PurpleStride.
Photo Gabriele Holtermann

The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) hosted its largest annual fundraiser, the PanCAN PurpleStride walk, on April 29, raising national awareness and much-needed funds for pancreatic cancer research.

Undeterred by the torrential downpours, a few hundred participants gathered at Pier 17 for the 1.4-mile walk through parts of the Financial District, raising over $600,000 for leading-edge research on early detection strategies and new treatments.

Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States and has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers — the survival rate is just 12%. However, the number is up from years ago when pancreatic cancer was a definite death sentence, and PanCAN aims to increase the survival rate to 20% by 2030.

Pancreatic cancer is difficult to detect since the pancreas sits deep in the abdomen, and doctors usually cannot see or feel the tumor during a physical exam.

Currently, there is no standard test to diagnose pancreatic cancer, making detection even more difficult, and symptoms are not always obvious and usually develop over time. Symptoms can be different for each person and include abdominal or back pain, weight loss, jaundice, loss of appetite, nausea, changes in stool, and recent-onset diabetes.

NY1 news anchor Ruschell Boone, pancreatic cancer survivor, leads through the opening program of PanCAN PurpleStride.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

NY1 news anchor Ruschell Boone, who just beat pancreatic cancer, served as the event’s emcee.

Boone shared with the crowd that she had stomach pain that wouldn’t go away and felt something was wrong with her body. She visited her physician several times, who suggested she change her diet and exercise.

At Boone’s urging, her husband Todd took her to the emergency room on June 14, 2022. She thought the ER doctor was going to tell her she had an ulcer, but he had even worse news for her.

“When that doctor came back and said, ‘Mrs. Boone, you can’t leave the hospital. I think you have pancreatic cancer,’ in that moment, I thought I was going to die,” Boone said. “For those of you who have ever been diagnosed with cancer, your whole world speeds up and slows down at the same time, and your whole life flashes before your eyes. And so it did for me.”

What followed were multiple rounds of chemo, Whipple surgery (a complex operation to remove the head of the pancreas), and an unwavering determination to beat one of the most aggressive forms of cancer — and to live for her husband and sons, Jackson and Carter.

Family members and pancreatic cancer survivors braved the rain and participated in the 2023 PanCAN PurpleStride.Photo Gabriele Holtermann

Boone, who posted about her fight on social media, finished her last chemo round in February. Now cancer-free, she has returned to the anchor desk.

“We are here to fight not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones,” she said, “for those who have passed on who have fought a good fight and are no longer here.”

Boone also gave a shoutout to all the caregivers of pancreatic cancer patients who step up to the plate, helping out with household chores, home-cooked meals, or driving their loved ones to chemo appointments.

“Any survivor will tell you that being here today would not be possible without their caregivers,” Boone said. “And I wouldn’t be here without my husband, Todd Boone. I love you to death, and thank you.”

Patrick Swayze’s widow, Lisa Niemi Swayze, and Oscar winner Franke Previte speak at the 2023 PanCAN PurpleStride in New York City.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Lisa Swayze, the widow of America’s heartthrob Patrick Swayze who died from pancreatic cancer in 2009, also spoke at the event.

Swayze, the official spokesperson for PanCAN, said that fame and fortune mean “nothing unless you’re here with each other, with the people who are important to you.”

“If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything, and all the money in the world can’t help you,” Swayze said. “I’m continuing the fight that [Patrick Swayze] started. And just because he’s gone doesn’t mean it’s over for me. And I look forward to the day where we’re going to kick [pancreatic cancer], and we are moving in that direction.”

Among those who walked Saturday were the daughters and son-in-law of Emilio Lugo Jr., a former NYPD detective and 9/11 first responder who died of pancreatic cancer on July 14, 2022.

Emilio Lugo, who also served in the United States Army, was diagnosed with the disease in Oct. 2021.

“On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we had a conversation saying, ‘Wow, we really lucked out because I was also a first responder because there are still people dying,” said daughter Edna Lugo, referring to 9/11 first responders who have died from cancer linked to Ground Zero toxins. “The next month, he got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that spread to his lungs and his liver.”

The family of Emilio Lugo Jr., aka Emilio’s Smile Squad, walk in honor of their dad and father-in-law.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Lugo’s family said they made the best of their remaining time together, taking Lugo to Mets games, the van Gogh exhibit, and on beach vacations. He also gave away his daughter Edna when she got married.

Lugo participated in the walk last year with his family, naming the group “Emilio’s Smile Squad.”

“The one thing I want to say about my dad is that he had cancer, but cancer did not have him,” Edna Lugo said. “He said no matter what adversities we go through in life, you smile through it. And that’s why I’m here with a big smile on my face.”

Besides research funding, PanCAN provides free, in-depth, personalized resources, information, and support for pancreatic cancer patients. For more information about PanCAN, patient support, and how you can donate, visit their website at pancan.org.

Family members and pancreatic cancer survivors braved the rain and participated in the 2023 PanCAN PurpleStride.Photo Gabriele Holtermann