Speakers shed light on pancreatic cancer

Erin Willett said she heard the best and worst news of her life on the same day, within the same hour: She made it onto NBC’s reality show “The Voice,” and her father was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

She said hearing about her father was like seeing her “Superman immediately crumbling.”

“I didn’t know anyone with cancer,” Willett said. “I had heard of it, sure, but I didn’t really know what it was.”

Willett was one of four panelists at the second Griffith Family Foundation Pancreatic Cancer Symposium on Friday. The panelists met with local high school and Penn State Altoona students in the afternoon before speaking to the public in the evening.

She shared the story of how her family handled her father’s diagnosis and why she now speaks out for awareness of the disease.

Willett eventually reached the semi-finals of “The Voice,” a singing competition, and said her father was supposed to come see her in the audience. Before he could, however, she received a call from her mother and learned he had only 24 hours to live.

She said she wanted to be with him, but her mother told her to stay and compete.

“I was out doing things for myself,” Willett said. “I felt selfish.”

After “The Voice,” Willett began to work with Hope for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network as ambassador but said she never felt entirely comfortable with the message of her own story.

“I hated it,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to be the face of hope.’ My story

doesn’t have hope. My father passed away. … But I realized it’s not about me.”

Other speakers at the symposium were Dr. A. James Moser, executive director of the Institute for Hepatobiliary and Pancreatic Surgery at Harvard University; Dr. Herbert J. Zeh III, chief of the Division of Gastrointestinal Surgical Oncology at UPMC CancerCenter; and Dr. Ralph D. McKibbin, director of operations at Blair Gastroenterology Associates in Altoona.

McKibbin challenged the high school students to stand up and fight against cancer, as “the power lies within this young generation.”

He said that in the next five to seven years, pancreatic cancer will become the No. 1 cause of cancer death, and it will be up to young people to truly combat it and find a cure.

“For the future generation, it’s going to be their No. 1 concern,” McKibbin said.

All of the students in attendance Friday, about 100, were there voluntarily to take in the information, said Cathy Griffith, co-founder of the Griffith Family Foundation.

The group included students from the Altoona, Everett, Northern Bedford and Hollidaysburg school districts, along with Bishop Guilfoyle, she said.

The main message of the event – “Stories of Hope” – was to show that, despite the seriousness of pancreatic cancer, there is never a reason to give up.

“It’s really a way, in my opinion, to ignite the fires of hope,” she said.