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SPANISH FORT (10/10/18) -- Only in south Alabama can great fall fishing fuel life-changing research and treatment of one of the deadliest diseases in the United States.
But that’s exactly what the Salty Worm Brackish Classic and Delta Bash does every year, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Gaillard Pancreatic Cancer Research Endowment at the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute. The fund supports MCI’s efforts to detect and treat the country’s third leading cause of cancer-related deaths.
It is estimated that of the more than 55,000 Americans who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, at least 44,000 will die from it.
One of the primary reasons why pancreatic cancer can be so deadly is the difficulty of detection, according to Lewis Pannell, Ph.D., MCI’s first researcher and head of its Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. Due to the pancreas’ position in the back of the abdomen, behind the stomach, it can be hard for imaging technology to get a clear look into it.
“I think in most cases the person will already be showing symptoms before they'll ever get to a stage where they might be imaged,” Pannell said. “And it's found through imaging.”
Currently, there is no standard of care established for pancreatic cancer screening, and many of the symptoms mirror those of less serious afflictions, such as back pain and diarrhea. So one of the areas Pannell and other MCI researchers are studying is the role of proteins as tumor markers.
The PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, protein is a key marker for the detection of prostate cancer, as elevated levels point physicians to the underlying causes. And Pannell said finding a similar marker for pancreatic cancer could be a key to early detection.
“You need something like that, that says, ‘Something's not right with your pancreas. You need to be checked,’” he said. Otherwise, detection would need to occur via treatment for a different ailment.
That was the case for Mobilian Rob Stuardi, a huge supporter of the Salty Worm Brackish Classic. For more than three years, he suffered the symptoms of pancreatitis, and in 2015 was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for the removal of intraductal papillary mucinous neoplasm, or IPMN, tumor.
Known as the Whipple procedure, the surgery includes the removal of a portion of the pancreas, and afterward it was discovered that Stuardi’s tumor contained an area of adenocarcinoma. But it was caught early enough, and the tumor was entirely contained in the portion that was removed.
“It ended up being a malignant tumor, so literally six months later, I probably would have had full-blown pancreatic cancer,” Stuardi said. “And I was so lucky I didn't even have to have chemo or radiation because it was still contained.”
The 48-year-old now gets regular CT scans at the Mitchell Cancer Institute, but otherwise doesn’t require additional treatment. Realizing how fortunate his situation was, considering the mortality rate of most pancreatic cancer patients, Stuardi set the goal of running a marathon while still recovering in the hospital.
“I told my wife I was going to run a marathon since we beat this,” he said. So in November of last year, he successfully completed the Chicago Marathon and followed it up last March with the New Orleans Marathon. And on his 49th birthday in November, Stuardi will run the New York City Marathon.
Stuardi raised more than $14,000 for the Project Purple awareness organization during his preparations for the Chicago Marathon, and hopes to top that running for the group in New York. Now, Stuardi speaks to groups across the country, and last year shared his story with the participants of the Salty Worm tournament at the Bluegill restaurant on Battleship Parkway.
“I'm a big supporter of anything that helps raise awareness and support, and that's how I got involved with the Mitchell Cancer Institute,” he said.
Stuardi wasn’t aware of MCI’s role in pancreatic cancer research and treatment before his surgery, but he’s been a big supporter since he toured the facility in advance of last year’s Salty Worm, which is sponsored by Hieronymous CPAs.
“I was extremely impressed to see where the money goes for the research and what they're doing with it and the grants and everything that they have,” he said.
Medical oncologist Dr. Moh’d Khushman said one of the Mitchell Cancer Institute’s greatest achievements can be seen by patients and people taking tours like Stuardi did. Anyone sitting in the waiting areas can see directly into the research labs where scientists like Lewis Pannell are conducting clinical trials. And the researchers have only to look through the windows in their labs to see the patients who are benefiting from their efforts, and the doctors healing them.
“The proximity of the two teams in the same building makes communication and collaboration easier to accomplish,” said Khushman, who treats patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “The lab teaches us about what they find and what they think might be coming, and on the clinical side we tell them what we need.
“And when patients come to the building, I think it provides hope for them,” he said.
Tickets for the Salty Worm Brackish Classic and Delta Bash can be purchased on eventbrite.
About USA Mitchell Cancer Institute
As the region's only academic cancer center, USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute combines NIH-funded scientific research with comprehensive cancer care serving communities across southern Alabama, southeast Mississippi and portions of northwest Florida. With three locations, more than 50 clinical trials, and five support groups, the Mitchell Cancer Institute guides patients and their families from the moment of diagnosis through survivorship.
© 2018 USA Health