Celebrating a Life: Jabari Aiken Takes on a New Challenge with Project Purple

Jabari Aiken and his dad, Jarret who battled pancreatic cancer.

At the age of twenty-two, Jabari Aiken was enjoying his life as a college athlete at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). However, his life would be turned upside down when his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Following his father’s passing six months after his initial diagnosis, Aiken began to think about how to best celebrate his father’s memory, while also doing his part to help support the pancreatic cancer community. Now, he’s getting ready to run the New York City Half Marathon, hoping that this race will be the start of a new tradition.     

“I’ve been looking for ways to honor my father, so this is tremendous to me,” said Aiken. “This is something hopefully I’ll be doing every year.”

If you would like to donate to support Jabari’s fundraising efforts, click here.

It’s What You Do for Family

Jarrett Aiken would have said that though he was Jabari’s father, he was also Jabari’s best friend. And like any good friend, Jarrett constantly did his best to support his son in anything he did, especially athletics. Whether it was at track meets in high school or football games in college, he was always there to cheer on his son. 

“I remember in high school we had to do a school tour throughout Texas, going on unofficial visits to look at schools that were looking at me for football. My dad was the main one who was like, ‘Let’s plan this’…and he’d be the main one yelling at coaches like, ‘Why haven’t you offered him, what’s wrong with you guys, you’re all idiots, he’s a great player,’ you know.”

Jarrett was proud of his son for eventually signing on to play football for UTSA as a cornerback/ receiver. And even though Aiken was now a full-time college student, that didn’t stop the two from being close. And it didn’t hurt that the Aikens lived only about fifteen minutes away from campus. 

“We were friends through and through,” Aiken recalls. 

However, Jarrett began experiencing what would eventually be identified as symptoms of pancreatic cancer about seven months before his official diagnosis. He had seen several doctors for these symptoms, but most concluded that he was having issues with his gallbladder. In September of 2021, he was admitted to the ER for his pain, and it was then that the family learned that there was no issue with Jarrett’s gallbladder. He had stage four pancreatic cancer. 

“It was tough,” said Aiken, “Going into [the ER], I didn’t expect that to be what was going on. I was like ‘Hey, dad’s got to go into surgery, he’s got to get his gallbladder removed or whatever the case may be, he’s going to be fine.’ So, it was extremely difficult.”

However, Aiken didn’t dwell on his negative emotions, choosing instead to be there for the people that he loved. He, along with his stepmother and sister, took on the responsibility of managing the household. Aiken moved back home from college to support his father and two young brothers during his father’s battle. He took his father to his chemotherapy appointments, cooked and cleaned, took his brothers to school, and eventually, sat by his father’s side in the hospital when his condition worsened. 

“It was a difficult responsibility,” said Aiken. “But that’s kind of what you do when this sort of thing happens.” 

Prior to his father’s diagnosis, Aiken had torn his ACL, so he no longer had to dress for games or travel. Looking back, Aiken sees this as a blessing in disguise, as it allowed him more flexibility to be with his family. However, Aiken still struggled to balance his life as a college student with the responsibilities of being a full-time caregiver. 

“I would go to campus for my knee in the morning, then I’d come back home and if my dad needed help, either preparing meals for him or cleaning the house, I would help with that,” Aiken recalled when asked about how he managed his time during his father’s diagnosis. “My stepmom started working from home, so we kind of did shifts… and I took my brothers to school and picked them up. Those were my responsibilities. So, you know, I did get some sleep, just not a lot of school work got done.” 

Jarrett eventually passed on March 11, 2021. After his passing, Aiken did his best to recall his father’s words to him and his family before he died, using them as a source of strength to motivate him to continue on with his life. 

“Living our lives after they have left us, in a really sorrowful, always sad type of state, he was never a proponent for that,” Aiken states as he explains his father’s wishes for his family after his passing. “He used to always tell us ‘Every time you think of me, I want you to think of something that makes you laugh, I want you to do stuff to celebrate my life, not mourn my passing. Once you get past the initial mourning period, I want things to be done to celebrate my life.’” 

Now, almost two years later, Aiken is taking steps to celebrate his father’s life by getting into a new sport that he hopes will help him make a positive impact in the pancreatic cancer community.

Running in the Right Direction

The New York City Half Marathon will be Aiken’s first-ever race. As a high school and college athlete, he was never fond of running, especially long distances. However, after his father’s passing, Aiken wanted to find a way to uplift the pancreatic cancer community and honor his father’s memory. 

“I think this is one, what he would have wanted, and two, this is an awesome opportunity to start with a new cause for myself that is specific to him,” said Aiken. “If I can raise even a thousand dollars – if I can raise money to help someone in their fight and it can potentially help them win, then I think I’ve done everything I can… because that one somebody could have been my father.” 

Aiken decided that the best way to start running was to also start serving the pancreatic cancer community, so he began to look for an organization that would help him do both. Ever since his father’s diagnosis, Aiken likes to stay up to date on pancreatic cancer research and statistics. While combing through websites, Aiken looked for pancreatic cancer organizations that focus on supporting research efforts to help combat this disease. He connected with Project Purple’s community and its first-hand experience with pancreatic cancer. 

“I really felt a direct connection. When you think about who’s running for Project Purple, it’s people who have beaten pancreatic cancer and people like me who have [had a loved one] pass from pancreatic cancer,” said Aiken. “[I felt] more of a direct connection and comradery having people who care about this, not just from a scientific perspective… but we have had a direct experience with this, these are people who have had a direct experience with this.” 

Aiken is committed to raising funds and awareness for the cause. He hopes that these efforts will help save patients like his father who may not be aware of the signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. 

“I know that if we had caught my father’s situation earlier, and had at least known that this was something that could develop, why it develops, and what causes it… small things like that, that people just don’t know,” said Aiken. “If awareness isn’t given to it then people like my father who had symptoms for months, may not know. Awareness in it of itself… can help save lives.” 

To get into the sport, Aiken has been following the advice of fellow runners, friends, and family who know how important this race, and this cause are to him. 

“I have some family friends, this is what they do. A friend of mine, his mom runs two halves every year and a marathon every two years,” Aiken explains, “She’s giving me a great plan along with what the Project Purple team gave me. I’m just taking advice from people who have done it… and we’re going to run!”

If you are interested in supporting Jabari on his journey, please click here. If you are interested in joining the Project Purple running community, please click here for more information about our upcoming races. Thank you so much Jabari– we can’t wait to see you cross that finish line in New York!

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