Katie Paul, like most kids of career military parents, moved around extensively during her childhood. Still, she remained very close to her larger, extended family clan, spending many summers with her aunt and uncle, Sharon and Gary Erickson, in Nebraska. Sharon worked as a school guidance counselor and her own children were grown, so she had time during the summer to nurture her niece. Sharon and Katie’s mother, Nancy Paul, were two of 12 siblings. There were six boys and six girls in their family, and they all grew up and had children of their own. The numerous aunts, uncles and cousins provided a source of entertainment and comfort for Katie during her summers in Nebraska. Sharon planned many fun activities and trips for Katie and the two developed a close and loving relationship over those many summers spent together.
In the year 2009, Katie’s family lost a brother-in-law to pancreatic cancer. From his brief illness and passing, she learned a bit about the deadly nature of the illness. In 2012, pancreatic cancer revisited her family, this time in a manner that felt even crueler: Katie’s beloved aunt Sharon was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Katie remembers first hearing about Sharon’s diagnosis. Her mother called her at work and they quickly went to Sharon’s house. “It was very surreal. I can remember everything from that day, and it was very shocking. We went through so many emotions, because it happened really quickly,” Katie recalls. She adds, “Once the shock wore off and we were able to wrap our heads around things, it became very real. It was devastating. We felt a real loss of control and as if there were just no options for treatment for pancreatic cancer.” Sharon Erickson’s health declined rapidly and she passed away in a matter of months from her illness. It was a blow to the entire family who had felt powerless as they watched Sharon fight her disease.
Katie and Sharon’s daughter, Elli Zadina, turned to one another for support and comfort during this time. Though the two are 13 years apart in age, they had grown close over the years. Both women were devastated by their mutual loss, and they both wanted to do something to fight back against pancreatic cancer. Elli’s involvement with pancreatic cancer charity Project Purple gave them the opportunity to do something concrete in Sharon’s honor.
Katie has not been a life-long runner, but she was an athletic kid who played basketball and volleyball while growing up. In college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she found her niche as goalie for the lacrosse team. Running was not something she did recreationally for fun. However, in 2012, when she broke up with her boyfriend during her senior year of college, she took up running. Elli and her husband, Jeff, were avid runners who had trained and run several races together. They had been encouraging Katie to join them sometime. Elli was training to run a marathon, so she suggested that they find a half-marathon to run together in the lead-up to her marathon. They signed up and ran the Grand Island Half-Marathon. “I did not know what to expect,” Katie says of her first racing experience. “But there is no feeling that replaces the feeling of crossing a finish line. I definitely wanted to run another one again.”
Elli had previously run and fundraised for Project Purple, and her positive experience with the charity inspired her to bring it home to the Lincoln Marathon. In a sad twist of fate, the Lincoln Marathon board had recently lost member Jayne Snyder to pancreatic cancer. The board, recognizing the desperate need for funding for pancreatic cancer research, opted to bring in Project Purple as their sole charity partner. Though the Lincoln half had always been on Katie’s radar for possible races, the relationship with Project Purple sealed the deal for her. In May 2014, Katie ran the Lincoln half-marathon with the Project Purple team for the first time. Katie explains how running for Project Purple made the training and racing experience more meaningful, saying, “In my first half-marathon, I was really running for myself. Elli and Jeff were huge encouragers. But running and fundraising for a cause gives greater meaning to the race. It was easier to stay motivated. We thought about Sharon and everyone else who was impacted by pancreatic cancer.” She returned to the Lincoln Half with the Project Purple team in 2015. There were more than 80 people who ran with Project Purple last year, and Katie enjoyed being a part of the big team experience.
In 2015, Katie was shocked to learn that pancreatic cancer had struck her family for a third time. This time it was Gary Erickson, Sharon’s husband, who received the news that he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. Gary’s diagnosis was such a complete shock. When he got sick, it never crossed our minds that this is what he could have. The odds were so slim that this would happen. It is still very surreal.” She reflects back on when she first learned the news about her uncle, saying, “There are no words to describe how I felt in that moment. It has been heart-breaking for everyone, but especially for Elli and the kids.”
On May 1st, 2016, Katie will once again run the Lincoln Half-Marathon with the Project Purple team. “My feelings about fighting pancreatic cancer changed in a huge way this year,” Katie says. Since she has become involved with Project Purple, she has met many others who have been impacted by the disease. “Though I would never wish pancreatic cancer on anyone else, you have to go through it yourself to really understand it,” she explains.
Throughout her family’s experiences with pancreatic cancer, there has been one silver lining of comfort. Katie’s family has built a relationship with Project Purple’s founder Dino Verrelli and many of the runners who have returned year after year to run the Lincoln Marathon. Katie has seen first-hand the comfort that her family has derived through its relationships with the Project Purple family. For her, Elli and the rest of their clan, it has been a blessing to have people to turn to for support.
This year, the Lincoln team has more than 100 members. Katie hopes to be in the top five fundraisers on the team. Please support her fundraising efforts by making a tax-deductible donation at the link below: