Joy Anderson was just twenty years old in 2002 when her mother was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, Joy was a sophomore in college in Lincoln, Nebraska when she first learned of her mother’s illness. Joy’s father, Jim, had gone into the hospital for knee surgery. His wife, Sharon, developed intense abdominal pains while she sat by his bedside in the hospital. The nurse on duty insisted upon arranging a scan for Sharon. Sharon did not want the test but finally relented. It was then that Sharon Anderson’s Pancreatic Cancer was first detected.
Sharon and her husband were soon sharing a hospital room when it was decided that she would need the Whipple surgery. The family would come to find out later that it was her doctor’s first time ever performing a Whipple. The Whipple surgery removes the head of the pancreas and the doctor essentially has to reroute the digestive tract in this surgery. It is a very complicated and difficult surgery for both doctor and patient. Sharon developed complications following the surgery and ended up remaining in the hospital for 80 days following her surgery.
Joy recalls knowing nothing about Pancreatic Cancer. She remembers how Breast Cancer was an illness that everyone seemed to be talking about, but could not recall any public discussions about Pancreatic Cancer. Joy was away at college when her mother became sick. She was working towards becoming an independent young woman at this juncture in her life. Though she went home on the weekends, she saw her mother in good spirits and had no idea that she was actually very sick. Yet Joy remembers talking with her parents, asking if she should leave school and come home for a semester. Her parents emphatically said no.
Sharon had chemotherapy and radiation treatments following her Whipple surgery. Joy learned on her birthday in June of 2003 that Sharon’s cancer had spread to her liver. Sharon now had stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, which would necessitate further treatments. The Anderson family sought out second and third opinions in the fall of 2003. On December 27, 2003, the family learned that there was no more the doctors could do for Sharon. Her cancer was terminal. Hospice was called in on January 2, 2004. Sharon Anderson passed away the very next day, January 3, 2004.
Joy is the youngest of three children. Her two siblings are 9 and 13 years older, and so Joy spent much of her formative years as essentially an only child. She remembers making forts with her mom and playing games with her, because she had no siblings to play with. As a teenager, the Anderson house was where all of the kids came to hang out, because Sharon welcomed everyone with open arms and a plate of her famous “Scotch-a-roos” treats. Joy remembers her mother as the Super PTA mom who devoted her life to raising her children and volunteering in their schools. Sharon helped plan Homecoming week and other activities at school. Joy jokes that her mother was more well-known at her school than she was.
Joy lost her mother when she when she was only 21 years old. She is now a grown woman of 32. When asked how losing her mother at such a young age affected her, Joy acknowledges that the loss has actually become more challenging with time. She finds herself now trying to go back in time to rekindle the memories she has of her mom and to remember the life lessons her mom had instilled in her as a child. Joy says, “When you are 18-20, you don’t pay attention to the little things, like the lessons in baking cookies or making dinner, because you think there will always be time for those things. Now I wonder why I was not paying close attention then, or why I did not ask my mom to teach me those things. I wonder why did I not have the patience to let her teach me how to knit when I was younger?” Joy wonders in what ways her life might have taken different paths if her mom had been around to give her advice in her early adulthood. She takes comfort in sharing memories of her mother with her older sister and her aunt, both of whom live close to her in Omaha, NE.
Over the last few years, Joy has chosen to remember her mother and deal with her loss by running in her honor. Joy was an athlete as a child. She played basketball, volleyball, soccer and ran track. Joy hated running, but when she was in high school, her basketball coach made it a requirement for the team to run track. Joy had to run the 400 and the 800. She recalls being terribly upset that she was going to be forced to run two laps around the track. She says, “I was so upset that I ran my two laps and then kept right on running away from the track when I was done!”
Somehow, the girl who hated track and field took up running as an adult. Joy participated in a few 5ks over the last several years, and then decided she wanted to run the Lincoln Marathon to fulfill a goal on her bucket list. Joy made the decision to run Lincoln in January of 2014, the year which marked the ten-year anniversary of her mother’s passing. When she went to register for the race, the marathon was sold out. Joy began looking at the charity programs affiliated with the marathon, and that is how she discovered Project Purple. Project Purple enabled her to fulfill her goal of running a marathon while doing something to help others affected by the disease which took her mother’s life.
Though running a marathon was an intimidating goal, Joy enjoyed training with her good friend, Caitlin, who was also signed up for the marathon. Sharing the miles with her friend made training fun, even during the cold winter months. Joy was proud of herself for getting her miles even when it was only 8 degrees outside. There were some tough runs, of course, but it was never that difficult to train because she and Caitlin motivated one another. Joy feels that committing to running for her mom gave her that extra inspiration that she needed to complete her training runs.
Joy had a great marathon experience at Lincoln. She and Caitlin started off running together. At some point they became separated, but this gave Joy some time to think about her mother. As she reflected on her mom, she knew why she was putting herself through the pain of running a marathon. She thought her mom would have been proud of her for persevering. Joy told herself, “I am choosing to run this race and fight this battle. People diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer do not have the option to choose their path. I get to choose.”
Joy finished the Lincoln marathon a little slower than her goal time, but she has no regrets. She was able to check off “running a marathon” from her bucket list. Though she is unsure as to whether or not she will run another full marathon, Joy plans to run the Lincoln Half-marathon again this year with the Project Purple team. Joy Anderson will continue to run in honor of her mother Sharon, who was taken from her life much too soon.
Support Joy’s fundraising efforts at her Crowdrise Page!