“If We All Stand Together, We Can Make a Difference”
The larkspur was blooming a brilliant deep purple in June 2012, the day Judy Leuteneker, her husband Mike, and their 2- and 4-year-old children first participated in PurpleStride Denver. The family stood together, among more than 1,000 walkers and runners dressed in purple, and Leuteneker felt energized and inspired.
“I saw people striding in memory of loved ones, which was wonderful,” she said. “But I also saw survivors. My whole life, I’d thought that if you got pancreatic cancer, that was it – you didn’t survive. But at PurpleStride Denver, I saw people beating pancreatic cancer.” She looked down at her children, in their decorated purple-clad stroller and wearing their pint-size PurpleStride T-shirts, and she let the tears fall.
It had been nearly 25 years since Leuteneker had lost her father, Johnny Goldberg, to pancreatic cancer six months after his diagnosis. She had been a child herself – only 12 at the time – and it had been very difficult to cope with his death. In fact, she said, like most families who have lost loved ones to the disease, she hadn’t had a chance to prepare for it. She experienced a range of emotions throughout her teen years and beyond.
When she learned about PurpleStride Denver (by happenstance, she came across a flier for it in a local doctor’s office), Leuteneker considered it an opportunity to do something to fight back against the disease that took her father. At the event she was struck by the statistics. Hearing that the survival rate had not improved in those 25 years, she knew she had to do more. Leuteneker went on to join the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s Denver Affiliate of local volunteers and the following year, in 2013, she registered again for PurpleStride Denver. This time she recruited some 40 family and friends to join “Papa Johnny’s Posse” – the team named in memory of her dad.
Leuteneker raised more than $8,000 for PurpleStride Denver, pushing her team’s total to nearly $10,000 raised for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and into the top individual fundraising spot. “That was the first time I had done something in my dad’s memory that made me feel like I was making a difference,” she said. “It made me feel very proud. All these years later, I had finally found a way to stand up and fight back against pancreatic cancer.”
Though Leuteneker’s son, Ethan, and her daughter, Allison (now 6 and 4) never knew their Papa Johnny, they, too, know the importance of joining the fight.
“Since my kids were born, I have shared stories about my dad with them. They feel like they know him in many ways. I’ve also told them about his fight with pancreatic cancer and how important it is that we continue to fight in his memory. I want them to know about the incredible person he was. They feel very connected to him and to the cause.”
Ethan keeps a picture on his bedside table of his mom with his Papa Johnny, taken when she was a child close to his age. Allison asks her mom to tell her stories about Papa Johnny’s golf game, his favorite snack (he loved marshmallows), or how he loved lending a helping hand to neighbors and friends.
The stories resonate with the kids, Leuteneker said, and her hope is that they – the next generation of supporters – will stay involved in the fight against pancreatic cancer not only because the disease took a great man they will never know, but because it’s the right thing to do.
“My husband and I have taught them that it’s important to take a stand for people and causes, and to fight for things that need to be changed. We talk about the importance of helping people who are sick, or poor, or hurt.
“I’ve told them that right now, because we’re healthy and strong, we should get behind a cause that is personal to us. It’s about doing the right thing, and making the right choices, and for us, taking a stand against pancreatic cancer is the right thing.
“My kids have learned – and they’ll proudly tell you this – that if we all stand together, we can make a difference.”