Home Awareness

Spreading the Word via Creative Ideas, Natural Talents

Across the country, at this very moment, more youngsters than we can imagine are planning the next big idea in bringing more attention to pancreatic cancer.

Ben Ruiz got in the purple spirit for Halloween last year and instead of trick-or-treating for candy, asked for donations to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Take Mikey Brandt of North Haven, Conn., for example. Mikey, who is 9, has always admired his Uncle Brian’s ability to throw a party each year in memory of Brian’s mother (Mikey’s grandmother) and fill the room with laughter, love and lots of memories of the late Katherine Brandt. Always looking for a way to contribute to the gathering, Mikey has done everything from raising money by selling elegant hand-knit hats and scarves made by his great-grandmothers to painting canvases for the party’s auction to weaving purple friendship bracelets for guests.

Then there’s Ben Ruiz, 13, from Mason, Ohio. Ben lost his grandfather to pancreatic cancer last October. With Halloween around the corner, Ben could think of no better way to lift his spirits than to dress in 100 percent head-to-toe-purple for Halloween AND instead of trick-or-treating for candy, ask instead for donations to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Those who opened their door to Ben on Halloween were a little surprised—but happy to contribute to a good cause. Ben presented a check from his impromptu Halloween outreach at a meeting of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Cincinnati Volunteer Affiliate.

“My Papa inspired me, and I miss him greatly,” Ben says.

College students get in on the act of giving back, as well.

Catherine Coleman, a student at the University of Minnesota, Deluth, put on her purple, laced up her running shoes and ran 13.1 miles last summer in Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. She says she is not even a runner, but she wanted to participate in honor of her mother, Brenda Coleman, a pancreatic cancer survivor and volunteer Affiliate Coordinator in the Twin Cities (Minn.) Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. 

At University of Notre Dame, the women’s rowing team hosts an annual event called the Women’s Rowing Erg-a-Thon in memory of former student rower Sarah McShane’s mother, as well as the mother of past academic advisor Kassen Delano Gunderman.

And the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is one of several universities that has a tradition of supporting the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. A growing group of students meets regularly on campus to discuss ways to bring awareness to the disease.

Here are a few more of the stories that’ve caught the attention of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network over the past year:

Jake’s Story

Jeff Oleson with sons Jake (left) and Daniel. Jake went on to create a film about his dad, who died of pancreatic cancer when Jake was 9.

Two years before he passed away of pancreatic cancer, Jeff Oleson signed up for art classes at Summit Visual Art Center in Summit, N.J., and began focusing on a new hobby. When he died in 2004, he left behind 80 oil paintings.

He also left behind a wife, 7- and 9-year-old sons and countless other family members, friends and acquaintances who admired his ability to light up a room and make everyone’s day better and brighter.

Some eight years later, his oldest son Jake Oleson set out on a quest to learn more about his dad and his outlook on life.

This quest – a senior art project that developed into an art show, a documentary film and a book – not only brought Jake closer to his family and connected him in a new way with his late father, it brought him closer to the fight against pancreatic cancer and connected him with others who’ve also been robbed of their loved ones.

“My dad inspired me when I was a kid, and I still remember that he made everything a fun experience for us – whether it was little league or just hanging out with family,” Jake says. “As I got older, it was really important to me to learn more about my dad from the people who knew him best.”

Jake hit the road for in-person interviews with those who knew and loved his dad, and a documentary about his father’s life ensued. “I was very moved by the stories I heard, and I wanted to share what I learned about his message and outlook on life with others.”

The film was screened late in 2012 during a show at the Summit Art Center, where the paintings were displayed and published books featuring photography (shot by Owen Schumacher) of the paintings were sold. Proceeds benefited the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. The senior project that inspired his cross-country journey had brought healing as well as new connections.

“When my dad was diagnosed, we found the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network online, and the organization really helped us a lot. I wanted to use the show as a way to show our appreciation in return.

“Making the documentary and hearing stories about my dad and the way he inspired people taught me that the smallest interactions really do leave lasting impressions. He was about being present in the moment, and it’s a good reminder to give your full attention every day and also to remember we’re not invincible. Pancreatic cancer is a disease that has affected a lot of people. His message of being present in the moment really resonated.”

Jake says he still hears from people who have seen his film. Many of them have also have a very personal connection to the disease.

“The feedback I get is bittersweet. Having people I’ve never met before reach out and say, ‘Hey, this film helped me,’ blows me away. It’s unfortunate that they are going through what our family went through, but it motivates me.”

The night of the art show, Jake remembers that many in the audience hadn’t been affected by pancreatic cancer. But they were supportive and wanted to help him raise awareness, and ultimately the event convinced him that filmmaking and directing was what he wanted to do as a career.

Jake is now a freshman at New York University, studying film and television. The first year of college has its typical challenges, but he continues to be inspired to make a difference.

“I have a folder filled with emails, Facebook messages, texts and letters from the people who’ve written about my documentary. I open it when I’m having a rough day or second-guessing my path, and every time I read the messages, it lifts my spirits and reinforces that I can do this.

“I also remember that I’m doing this for my dad. The night of the art show, people told me that my dad would’ve been overwhelmed with joy. I think today he would be very happy and proud of my involvement in the cause.”

To view Jake’s documentary and a visual recap of the art show, visit  

Jessica’s Story

Jessica Fedroff’s grandmother was like a second mother to her, and now Jessica enjoys spending time on projects and activities that honor her grandmother’s memory.

Jessica Fedroff of Bloomfield, N.J., was just days away from starting kindergarten when her grandmother, Janice Sheldon, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Six days later, she was gone.

“Gram” was like a second mother to Jessica.

“We couldn’t believe it all happened so fast,” she remembers.

Now a sixth-grader, Jessica is focused on raising awareness of pancreatic cancer in her community and at school. This past November, she hosted the seventh annual Purple Tag Day at school (she implemented it in her kindergarten year!), a successful awareness activity for students, teachers and staff where students pay $1 to leave their uniforms at home and instead wear purple to support the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.  

“It’s neat to see more people continue to participate in Purple Tag Day each year, and to know that my Gram is a part of it,” she says.

Jessica calls attention to the fourth leading cause of cancer death in other ways during November and year-round.

She has grown accustomed to speaking out in public about the disease and its impact on her family: She has spoken out to her entire school and to her local city council members. She and her mother accepted a proclamation from the mayor last November proclaiming November as National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. And she has attended Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., where she met with her members of congress to share her personal story while advocating for a focus on pancreatic cancer research.

Jessica Fedroff (far right) and friends during Purple Tag Day at school.

“All of this makes me very happy – I enjoying doing something for a great cause,” she says.

Jessica also keeps her grandmother’s memory alive in ways that appeal to her own love of crafts and projects, as well as interests the two shared together: One of Gram’s favorite places was the beach, and they spent much time there – playing in the sand and gathering shells. Today, each beach visit still includes seashell-collecting. Jessica takes them home, paints them purple, adds a “PanCAN for Jan” sticker inside in a tribute to Gram, threads a ribbon through, and turns out ornaments by the dozens. She sells them for $1 and sends proceeds to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Other of her awareness-raising ideas include crafting trendy purple rubber-band bracelets and designing her own brand of purple Christmas cards.

Even her Girl Scout troop has gotten in on the act – at Jessica’s urging, each proudly wears a purple ribbon pin on her vest.

Jessica says this is her mission – her calling – and she encourages her peers to find theirs. “It’s nice to hear what kids have to say about issues that have affected them. For me, I really want to be a part of finding early detection methods so that other people won’t have to go through what we went through.”

Shea’s Story

Shea Price coordinated a Cancer Awareness Week at her school last November and used the opportunity as a way to educate her fellow students about pancreatic cancer.

Fourteen-year-old Shea Price of South Plainfield, N.J., is also versed in the facts about pancreatic cancer, and she, too, speaks out with an eloquence that can come from losing far too many close to her to pancreatic cancer. Here, Shea shares her story in her own words:

I recently got involved with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. The first activity I did was this past November, when my mom, brother, grandmother and I went to our town council meeting to support my father’s friend, Todd Cohen, who is the Media Representative for the Northern New Jersey Affiliate of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Todd had invited us to the meeting, where he was accepting the proclamation from our mayor that November would be Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in my town.

On the way home from the meeting, I had an idea to have a Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day at my school. The more I thought about it, a Cancer Awareness Week sounded even better! I would give information to my classmates on the morning announcements for a different cancer each day, and I would ask everyone in the school to wear a corresponding color each day for that particular cancer. That Friday – which happened to be “Purple with a Purpose” day (a campaign to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer nationally) – I talked about pancreatic cancer and all the kids in my school were asked to wear purple. 

Shea Price with her family at PurpleStride New Jersey 2013.

Not only was Todd an inspiration for me to get involved, but my grandfather (my dad’s dad), my father’s cousin, my mom’s uncle and my neighbor have all died of pancreatic cancer, and one of my father’s friends, who is only 53, was also recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

I will be going to a different school next year, but my principal says he hopes to continue Cancer Awareness Week every year from now on.

I also really enjoyed being a part of PurpleStride New Jersey last November. My mom, dad, brother and I participated and it was our first PurpleStride. We had a great time walking the 5K and watching Todd make a speech.

I would really encourage other kids to get involved. This is a serious illness that can affect anyone at any time, and the more people who know about it, the better. Anything to get more awareness, money for research, and hopefully, someday a cure or at least a way to detect it early.

Editor’s note: Shea is also involved in Girl Scouts and is a member of the South Plainfield Middle School field hockey team. She plays clarinet in the band and is in the chorus, she writes for the school newspaper and she is in the drama club gearing up for a production of “Sleepy Hollow.” Last but not least, she is looking forward to trying out for the softball team this spring.