For some Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) volunteers, grassroots advocacy is a family affair. Enter the story of two sisters, from two different families, all working together for a common goal: to double pancreatic cancer survival by 2020.
Kelly Barber and Wendi Cihacek: Passing the Purple Torch to the Next Generation
When Kelly Barber’s husband, George, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2006, she thought she’d not only have to navigate her life solo, but also figure out how to raise their 2-year-old daughter as a single mom.
What ended up happening was beyond anything she could have ever imagined. Her sister, Wendi Cihacek, moved across the state to help provide Barber and her daughter the support they so desperately needed.
For the better part of the last decade, Barber has gone to PanCAN affiliate meetings in her Iowa community, raised money for PurpleStride and attended National Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., and her sister has been right by her side every step of the way.
“It’s huge that Wendi is involved,” Barber said. “When we first got started, it was just for George. Today, it’s still for George, but it’s also for all the people we’ve met who are alive and fighting.”
The sisters said their PanCAN volunteerism is also about the next generation, specifically Barber’s now 14-year-old daughter, Megan. They work hard so they can serve as positive role models for her and other young women.
“Megan comes to most events with us,” Cihacek said. “What I hope she gets from it is the lesson that her voice counts. Going to Advocacy Day, painting Capitol Hill purple – it’s beyond anything she can learn in a textbook. She’s learned that she can use her passion to raise awareness and get more funding for cancer research.”
Barber and Cihacek dedicate hundreds of hours to PanCAN volunteering every single year. The reason they keep at it is simple.
“I really am trying to make something good out of something bad,” Barber said. “It’s important to me that another family doesn’t have to go through this.”
Amy Jardon and Melinda Thach: Daughters of a “Professional Volunteer”
Sisters Amy Jardon and Melinda Thach grew up together, took care of their sick mom together, grieved her death together and are now working together to fight pancreatic cancer. When their mom died from the disease, their lives changed forever and their family got simultaneously smaller and bigger.
“We are the best purple family we hope you never have to join,” Jardon said.
“Everyone is welcome in our big purple family,” Thach continued. “We don’t want more people to join it, but we are here for those who need to. And our purple family is a lot like a real family, with laughter and tears and everything in between. Sometimes we cry, other times we’re wearing big purple tutus.”
Rather than idly sitting by after their mother’s passing from pancreatic cancer, Jardon and Thach used their grief as motivation. As active PanCAN volunteers, the sisters regularly help raise much-needed funding for pancreatic cancer awareness and research. They alert their local media about news stories involving pancreatic cancer. Jardon goes to Advocacy Day to urge lawmakers to allocate more funding to cancer research, and Thach is thinking about joining her sister and the 600 other activists in D.C. this June.
“We do this as a way to honor our mom,” Jardon said. “Our mom was a doer, a volunteer, a service-minded person. We jokingly called her a ‘professional volunteer.’ I feel like everything we do is for my mom.”
And for other people and their mothers.
“I like the idea of doubling the survival rate,” Thach said. “I want to have more survivors. It didn’t work out for our mom, but maybe the work we are doing means it won’t happen to other people’s mothers.”