Katie Johnson Runs Des Moines for Brother

In June, 2015, Katie Johnson and her family were shaken to the core when they learned that her brother, Keith Wilgenbusch, had pancreatic cancer. It was the first time anyone in their family had been diagnosed with cancer of any kind. Katie and her seven siblings grew up on a farm in rural Iowa. “Keith is 11 years older than me. We are a very close family and I looked up to him a lot,” Katie says. Katie, a legal assistant, now lives two-and-a-half hours away from her brother. She has felt a sense of helplessness as Keith has battled his disease because she is too far away to assist him on a day-to-day basis. Even though she cannot be with him physically all of the time, she is always with him in spirit. Katie is now preparing to run the Des Moines half-marathon with the Project Purple team in a show of support for Keith’s fight.

Keith Wilgenbusch

Today, Keith lives and works on the family farm with his wife Jill and their children Keegan, McKenna, Corbin, Kiera and foster daughter Alisa. “He is a family guy,” Katie says. “He loves spending time with his kids and going camping with them. They enjoy helping him on the farm. He and his son tap their trees for maple syrup. They have a milking cow so they can make their own butter. There is a classic sense to him that you don’t see in people anymore.”

Katie keith family

In 2015, Keith began experiencing digestive issues, making eating painful and difficult. Lab testing revealed a serious problem. He was admitted to the hospital and doctors did a test called an ERCP (Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography). During the procedure, doctors placed a stent in his bile duct. He had to remain in the hospital for five days following the stent placement. Following his release from the hospital, Keith developed severe pancreatitis. He was readmitted to the hospital to have another stent placed in his pancreatic duct. On June 25, 2015, Keith was diagnosed with ampullary cancer. Ampullary cancer arises in the area where the bile and pancreatic ducts merge into the small intestine. He had a Whipple procedure at the Mayo Clinic in August, 2015. His oncologist determined that he had stage III B ampullary cancer.

The doctors were optimistic that they had removed all of the tumor during surgery. After allowing his body to heal for a few weeks, Keith started chemotherapy in October, 2015. Though he did not struggle with typical chemotherapy side effects, he had several bouts of pancreatitis. He started showing signs of jaundice, but finished his chemotherapy on March 29th. Unfortunately, the time following chemo was difficult. During April, 2016 Keith was in and out of the hospital with infections. Finally, his doctor placed a bile drain into the side of his torso.

At the end of April, Keith’s doctor found a new tumor near the site of his original tumor.   Katie says, “Where the cancer is now, they cannot do surgery to remove it. They are just doing chemo. It has been really hard to watch him struggle through the chemo.” While the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer has been difficult for everyone to bear, Katie is amazed by her brother and sister-in-law’s strength. She explains, “Jill and the kids have handled the illness well. Maybe even better than the siblings have.” As for Keith, she believes his inner strength is helping him to face his diagnosis head on. “He is pretty ornery and stubborn. He is a fighter and it has helped him thus far.

Katie Runs for Keith

Katie started running 10 years ago after she graduated from college and moved to a new city. With a new job but no social connections yet, she decided to get outside and get moving. She explains, “I decided to go for a walk, but thought I was too young to walk, so I started running!” Since that time, Katie has run two marathons, four half-marathons and numerous shorter races. Katie had never participated in sports as a young girl. She says, “I was not athletic as a kid. We lived so far out in the country that I couldn’t really do sports at school.” However, she quickly fell in love with running. Running became a way for her to clear her mind and push herself physically. She has now accomplished things she never thought possible. “I am amazed that I can train for and finish a marathon. Running has reshaped my identity,” Katie explains.

Sisters Denise, Karrie, Katie and Janene after the 2015 Des Moines marathon relay
Sisters Denise, Karrie, Katie and Janene after the 2015 Des Moines marathon relay

When Keith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Katie sought ways to show support for his battle while raising funds for pancreatic cancer. She signed on to run the Half-Blood Prince half-marathon on the Hogwart’s Running Club website. The virtual half-marathon benefitted Project Purple. After completing the half-marathon, she investigated Project Purple further and soon learned that she could run the Des Moines half-marathon for the charity. She says, “I knew instantly that is what I wanted to do. My three sisters and I are going to run the half together.”

Katie & Karrie
Katie & Karrie

Though Keith has lost a lot of weight, his spirits remain strong. Katie hopes that by running and raising money for Project Purple she can help unlock the mysteries of pancreatic cancer. “Running for Project Purple makes me feel like I am helping to find a cure. When I am running and tired and want to stop, I think of my brother. He can’t stop his fight. Getting through training is nothing compared to what he is going through. I know pancreatic cancer research is underfunded. I really hope we can find a cure someday soon.”

Please make a tax-deductible donation to Katie’s Project Purple Des Moines Half-Marathon fundraiser at the following link:

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