This is a special guest column by Todd Cohen, the Media Representative for the New Jersey Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Wendy Keil has devoted her entire life to giving back to others.
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. As a child, the Morris Township resident watched her parents dedicate their free time and resources to helping various charities locally and internationally. From the local synagogue to Israeli children’s charities, Keil’s house in Scotch Plains almost doubled as the Ronald McDonald’s House for Jews.
“It was instilled in us,” she said. “There wasn’t anything my parents weren’t involved in. It was always my understanding that we are here to give back to the world.”
Now, Keil is undergoing the fight of her life, but still has her unselfish eyes set on the needs of others.
This June 14, the pancreatic cancer survivor will be joining about 600 other volunteers from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in Washington, D.C. for the group’s Fifth Annual Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day. Keil will meet with members of Congress to support increased pancreatic cancer research funding and ask them to co-sponsor the Pancreatic Cancer Research & Education Act (S. 362/ H.R. 733) to spur true progress in fighting the disease.
After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Keil’s world was rocked again this past December. With her cancer in remission, she experienced some abdominal discomfort – a sign that something was wrong. Keil’s 6-month checkup revealed unusually high tumor markers in her blood, indicating the cancer had reappeared. She went for a scan and learned that she had developed Stage IV pancreatic cancer that had spread to her liver.
Her spirits plummeted. The only thing that rose was her floor in the hospital. Keil went from the second floor (breast cancer) to the third floor (pancreatic cancer) for treatments at Morristown Memorial’s Carol G. Simon Cancer Center.
“I was in a state of shock,” said Keil, who lost a close friend to the disease about seven years earlier. “When I found out I had breast cancer, I figured I liked pink and I liked doing the walks. But when I learned I had pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t get rid of the image of her never having a good day. I lived day to day, with her dying on her fifty-first birthday, and it was difficult to watch.”
So many others have faced a similar, daunting battle with the disease. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States. In 2010, over 43,000 people were diagnosed with the disease and nearly 37,000 died from the disease. Only about 6 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive longer than five years. There is no early detection method or effective treatment, and it is the most under-funded, under-recognized and least-studied of all major cancer killers with only two percent of the National Cancer Institute’s annual budget dedicated to pancreatic cancer research.
Like many diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Keil isn’t sure how she found herself in this position. Smokers do represent a higher risk group. Her father, who died of emphysema, was a smoker throughout his life and exposed his family to second-hand smoke, but Keil never took a puff of a cigarette.
Environmental factors could have played a part but that is also uncertain. One growing area of research has shown a link between Ashkenazi Jews and the disease. After asking around, Keil, an Ashkenazi Jew, learned that her father’s uncle and cousin had pancreatic cancer. With 10 percent of all cases found to have a hereditary component, that factor seems to have been the most likely possibility.
But Keil doesn’t dwell on the “why”. She’s more focused on the “what” -- as in what needs to be done to give hope to others.
Once again the selfless Keil finds herself in the position of worrying more about others and less about herself. She has participated in about 20 cancer-related events from Relay to Life to the Susan G. Komen Walk.
Last month, she had about 130 supporters as part of her “Walking for Wendy” team who joined her in Riverside Park as part of the PurpleStride Manhattan Walk. Her team raised nearly $70,000, which marks one of the highest totals ever raised by an individual team for a Pancreatic Cancer Action Network-sponsored walk. She is also planning to attend the Second Annual PurpleStride New Jersey walk at the Mack Cali Business Complex in Parsippany Nov. 6.
During the Manhattan walk, Keil’s entourage sported a caricature of their inspiration wearing boxing gloves in a fighting stance to show Keil’s determination for fighting this disease.
“If anyone can step up and fight for this cause, it’s my mother,” said Wendy’s daughter, Heather Keil. “She’s going to keep fighting and fighting until she knocks down the opponent. She’s such a strong person, and we’re happy that we can use her as a voice and vehicle for the cause.”
Keil said she has a mountain of support. Her children, Adam, Sarah, Heather, and Noah and the rest of the family offer up assistance in things like nutrition and nurturing. When Wendy was initially diagnosed, Wendy’s husband, Gordon, sat down the children and two spouses, Elizabeth and Mike, to prepare them for what was to come. He expected each of them would react differently to the news. Whatever their reaction, it was the appropriate one for them to display as unique individuals presented with this type of situation.
From that point on, it’s been typical to see the family gather at the Morris Township home on a more regular basis. Even when they’re not visiting, the children are emailing, text messaging or calling each other, supporting their mother but also each other.
“We were scrambling to do everything at first,” Heather said. “I guess the best part of the whole situation is that it’s really brought us all much closer together. We were close to begin with, but now we know we need to be there for each other.”
Keil tries to maintain a normal schedule, driving to work as a fundraiser for the Jewish National Fund. She appreciates the support of her employer, which allows her to go to chemotherapy treatments and other physician appointments. The job keeps her out of the house and her mind off of her health issues while helping her maintain insurance benefits to cover the cost of her potentially burdensome medical expenses.
“It’s easy to lie in bed all day and do nothing,” said Keil, who takes about nine pills a day in addition to chemotherapy and two shots a week. “But I love the job and I love the state of Israel. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Once an active athlete who enjoyed riding bicycles and playing tennis–even winning some tournaments at her local club–Keil said the disease has robbed her of many of her passions. She is looking forward to a trip to Wimbledon in late June but is apprehensive about how she will feel. The trip comes on one of her typically bad weekends that follow a rigorous chemotherapy treatment of GTX (Gemzar-Taxotere-Xeloda). The regimen has helped stabilize her cancer, which her doctor said may have completely disappeared from her liver.
“It gives me hope but it doesn’t mean it’s gone,” she said. “I’m in good spirits and I’m at peace with it. You just do the best you can to keep going.”
Keil does find the ability to laugh at what she’s enduring. When she had breast cancer, the treatment caused her to gain weight. The opposite has been true with pancreatic cancer.
“I’ve watched my weight my whole life, but I’ve never had to focus on putting weight on before,” joked Keil, who has lost 30 pounds (over 20 percent of her body mass) since being diagnosed last year.”
Even with everything she’s been through, Keil, who turns 60 in August, has one regret. Not surprisingly, it reflects her altruistic roots.
She wishes she was a bone marrow donor.
“I’ve always wanted to save one life,” she said. “If by me being sick, I can save one life, I would be happy with that. I believe this is what I am on earth for. I just have to believe I can beat this, and stay alive to help so many others.”
With all of her hard work and determination, so many others are hoping she is playing a part in saving more than just one life. And continuing the mission to help that has carried her to this point.
For more information about the New Jersey Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, go to http://www.pancan.org/newjersey or email Todd Cohen at TCohen@pancanvolunteer.org.