Paramus councilwoman a driving force behind Sunday’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk

September 15, 2016 GMT

Jeanne Weber wants those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to have a better chance at survival than her late husband Ron, who lost his battle to the disease in 2005.

That’s why the Paramus councilwoman has been leading a grassroots effort in her neighborhood that, since 2007, has raised more than $1 million for cancer research, specifically the kind that would make it easier to catch the disease early.

Nearly a decade ago, Weber teamed up with The Lustgarten Foundation, a Long Island-based nonprofit focused on advancing scientific and medical research related to pancreatic cancer, and started the first Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk to honor her late husband Ron.

This Sunday will mark the 10th year of the annual walk, which has grown into the largest of its kind in the state.

The “insidious” disease, as Weber calls it, is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death in men and women, according to the National Cancer Institute. Because this type of cancer is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage, the survival rate is “extremely low” when compared with other cancers. The American Cancer Society estimated that in 2016, more than 53,000 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and more than 41,700 will die from it.

Ann Walsh, events director at the Lustgarten Foundation, said oftentimes patients confuse early signs of pancreatic cancer with other more common ailments. “You think you have the flu, then you find out you have cancer,” she said.

Such was the case with Ron Weber, who at first dismissed his feeling sick to a possible virus. But after days of his health not improving, he consulted a medical professional.

After Ron was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, doctors told him the cancer was too large to have been in its early stages. Still, Weber calls him “one of the lucky ones,” because he lived 16 months after his initial diagnosis.

He died on Nov. 21, 2005.

The following fall, Weber and her family attended their first fundraising walk hosted by the Lustgarten Foundation in Long Island. After meeting Walsh, and with a gentle push from one of her daughters, Weber soon teamed up with the nonprofit and organized their first walk in New Jersey.

Though Weber knew what organizing the walk would take - like securing a venue, finding sponsors, and choosing the right insurance - she had no idea that the walk would turn into the largest fundraising event for pancreatic cancer research in the state, and that several other walks would spring up in South Jersey in recent years.

In its first year, the walk attracted about 200 people and raised an estimated $46,000, said Weber. By the second year, the walk doubled to 400 participants and nearly tripled to $128,000 in funds raised. By the third year, between 600 and 800 people attended, prompting the walk to be moved from its original location at Saddle River County Park to Bergen Community College in Paramus, where it has been held ever since.“We raised over $1.3 million over the past nine years,” said Weber. “It’s wonderful, but they need more money.”

Because the Lustgarten Foundation is funded through a private donor, the organization said every penny raised at its more than 30 walks across the country goes directly to pancreatic cancer research. The organization was founded in 1998 and named after Cablevision executive Marc Lustgarten, who died from the disease.

On at least two occasions, Weber said the foundation reached out to her directly with a list of about eight research projects that the money raised from the Paramus walk could be allocated toward.

“I always pick the one that deals with early detection, like a blood test,” said Weber. “Early detection is so important, and I want not only my children and grandchildren, but everyone else’s children and grandchildren, to be tested at an early time.”

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer is hard to detect early. That’s partly because the pancreas is deep inside the body, which means health-care providers can’t see or feel early tumors during a routine physical exam, and also because patients usually have no symptoms until the cancer has already spread to other organs.

Though as deadly as pancreatic cancer can be, Weber said that with each year, the number of survivors who participate in the walk has grown.

“I’m just hoping this can be the year for a breakthrough,” said Weber.

The walk will take place Sunday at Bergen Community College in Paramus, with registration starting at 8:30 a.m. The walk begins at 10 a.m.

As of Thursday, the walk had raised more than $112,000 with four days of giving remaining.

Email: anzidei@northjersey.com; Twitter: @melanieanzidei