Of all cancers, pancreatic cancer is one of the hardest to suspect, screen for or treat. For Castle Pines resident Maureen Shul, the disease took away two family members and changed her outlook on …
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Of all cancers, pancreatic cancer is one of the hardest to suspect, screen for or treat. For Castle Pines resident Maureen Shul, the disease took away two family members and changed her outlook on life.
In 2007, Shul was stepping into the political arena, leading the charge to incorporate Castle Pines. As that vision became reality in 2008, Shul said advocates thought it was only fitting that she become the city’s first mayor.
Shul said politics and the path she was following all changed when her brother and mother died of pancreatic cancer in the same year.
Shul said when her brother was diagnosed, she had never even heard of that form of cancer.
Pancreatic cancer begins in the pancreas, an organ in the upper part of the abdomen, behind the stomach and in front of the spine. The pancreas is shaped like a fish with a wide head, a tapering body, and a narrow, pointed tail. The pancreas is part of the digestive system.
Dr. Richard Schulick, director of the University of Colorado Cancer Center, said it is because of where the pancreas is located that catching cancer at an early stage without proper screening is next to impossible.
“Pancreatic cancer is just a bad and tough cancer compared to other cancers we deal with,” he said. “With breast cancer you can feel a mass. With colon cancer, you have bleeding. This cancer is deep in the middle of the body, and you can’t see it or feel it.”
Besides the inability to see or feel pancreatic cancer, Shul said neither her mother nor brother had symptoms.
Symptoms for the disease can be minor and can often be overlooked by a regular physician, Shul said. If someone goes to a doctor with severe stomach pain, Shul said it is not uncommon for them to be sent home without further testing.
Schulick said other symptoms besides stomach pain may be unexplained weight loss, or a sudden case of jaundice.
Because it is usually diagnosed at later stages, Schulick said, pancreatic cancer is the third deadliest of all cancers.
According to the American Cancer Society, there will be 60,430 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2021. Of those, 48,220 will die.
Shul said her brother died after a four-year battle. Not long after her brother died, Shul said, her mother was diagnosed with the disease in October. By January, her mother died.
At that point, Shul said, politics were no longer important and doing something that made both the lives of her brother and mother matter became a priority. After years of work, Shul started the Wings of Hope Foundation.
After doing more research, Shul said, she quickly found that unlike the situation with other cancers, the system is way behind in creating regular screening protocols and finding successful treatment options for pancreatic cancer because by the time a diagnosis is made, the disease has progressed too much.
“There really are not all these survivor marches for pancreatic cancer because there are not a lot of survivors,” Shul said. “It is left to family and friends to carry on the fight. It was a no-brainer to start a foundation where everything we raise goes directly to research where answers can be found.”
Since starting Wings of Hope, Shul has raised more than $1.5 million that goes directly to research. The foundation carries no overhead, she said. There is no expensive CEO salary, as the organization is run with volunteers, she said.
“Where we are now with pancreatic cancer is where breast cancer research was 40 years ago,” Shul said. “Research and results have to move forward.”
Schulick, who is also a professor and chair of the University of Colorado Department of Surgery, said the work Shul does through Wings of Hope is invaluable.
“What she ultimately does is create pots of money to set aside for cutting-edge research,” he said. “Many of the projects getting funded may not work, but the ones that do have high rewards. She provides a steppingstone, a mechanism, to do this research and make progress.”
The only way to screen for pancreatic cancer is an MRI or CT scan. Shul said because of her family connection, she gets tested every six months.
While the cause of pancreatic cancer is mostly unknown, Schulick said family ties are not something to ignore. Anyone with a direct family member who has had pancreatic cancer should go to regular screenings.
Schulick said progress is being made through research to identify the cancer through blood tests.
To continue raising funds through Wings of Hope, Shul said she hosts one major fundraiser a year and several small events like golf tournaments.
Shul said losing her brother and mother made her take a hard look at what matters in life, and making a difference so other families do not go through what she did is the ultimate goal.
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