No Matter the Distance: Justin Shapiro Runs in Honor of His Grandfather’s On-going Battle with Pancreatic Cancer

Justin Shapiro is just starting to figure out his life. At 19 years old, Shapiro is a freshman at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Austin, Texas, studying business and finance. Being around his family has always been important to Shapiro, especially getting to connect with his Grandpa Jerry. 

“When he walks in the room– his aura is just super fun to be around,” Shapiro said. “I love spending time with my grandpa.”

Shapiro found a new way to connect with his grandfather after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2023, in the middle of Shapiro’s first semester of college. Since learning of his diagnosis, Shapiro has taken it upon himself to start fundraising to help support advances in pancreatic cancer research in the hopes that this will eventually help his grandfather. He recently just completed the Austin half marathon with Project Purple’s Pioneer Program, excited that he had a chance to raise money for those battling this disease.

Food and Family Go Hand in Hand 

Though Shapiro now spends most of his year in Texas going to college, he grew up in the Manhattan/Westchester, NY area. His family has always been close, both emotionally and physically, with his grandparents living a short distance away in Scarsdale and Croton-on-Hudson. Many of Shapiro’s childhood memories involve his grandparents.  

“They’ve always been very prevalent in my life,” said Shapiro, “I would see them multiple times a week, sometimes every day when I was younger.”

Food was always a big part of Shapiro’s relationship with his Grandpa Jerry, as his grandpa loved to cook. The pair would often get together and cook a massive Italian-style meal. The day-long process was always a special time for Shapiro because it meant getting to spend a whole day with his grandfather. 

“He has this meatball recipe that we would make together,” explained Shapiro. “We would make the meat, we’d make the sauce homemade and while that was cooking, we’d also make sausage and garlic bread, penne alla vodka. It would be these big feats when we had a free day and had a big Italian meal.”

In addition to cooking, Shapiro also loved talking with his Grandpa Jerry about current events and the finance class that his grandpa used to teach at a local college.

“He’s awesome. He’s kind and understanding, he’s a great teacher, he gets along with everyone, always in a good mood,” said Shapiro. “He’s always got a good lesson or story… very happy to talk about anything…”

Shapiro started college in the fall of 2023 at UT Austin. Only a few months later, though, Shapiro faced another massive change in his life. Grandpa Jerry was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Shapiro learned about his grandfather’s diagnosis when he came back to see his family over Thanksgiving break. 

“It was tough,” Shapiro remembered, thinking about when he first learned the news of his grandfather’s diagnosis. It was only a few days later that Shapiro had to go back to Texas with the knowledge that his grandfather was undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatment back in NY. 

However, Shapiro wanted to do something to help support his grandfather during his battle but had no idea how to go about doing so. Thousands of miles away, Shapiro felt cut off from his family. But, while back home during Christmas break, his aunt, who is an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, gave Shapiro the idea to do charity work to help support pancreatic cancer patients. 

His aunt had previously run the New York City Marathon with Fred’s Team through the hospital, and she was looking for opportunities to run the marathon again for charity. Together, they discovered Project Purple. Suddenly, Shapiro knew how he was going to help support his grandfather. He was going to raise money and run the Austin half marathon in honor of Grandpa Jerry’s battle. 

Running Together, Even When Apart

Shapiro had always been a runner; he had run cross country in high school. After graduating and moving down to Austin, Shapiro wanted to take a break from running. However, when he found friends who were interested in the sport, he decided to pick up running once more.

“One of my friends had never run a half before and had always wanted to, so I was like ‘alright, I’ll sign up and run it with you,” Shapiro explained about getting back into the sport. “It will be a great time!”’

Before his friend brought up the idea of running a half marathon, Shapiro had been looking to try running a race again. He had previously run the New York City Half Marathon on a whim after a local charity needed an additional runner for the race. Since then, he’s been thinking about running another half or full-length marathon. 

“That was my first half marathon and it was really fun,” said Shapiro, “I always wanted to do another one, but I hadn’t gotten around to it.”

So when his college friends wanted to sign up for a half marathon, he signed up for the Austin half and decided that to make it even more meaningful he would as a representative of  Project Purple through the organization’s Pioneer Program, which is a program designed to empower anyone to run any race while fundraising for research and patient financial aid. 

Whether you want to run an ultra-marathon or a 5k walk, the Pioneer Program only requires athletes to raise $500 or more and to secure their own entry into the race of their choice for a full Project Purple team kit and singlet. Everything raised goes directly to helping patients in need and funding research efforts. It’s the perfect way to get the Project Purple experience even if you want to run a race where Project Purple doesn’t have a full-fledged team yet. 

Shapiro was drawn to the organization because of the charity’s dedication to their mission and stories of patients. Through training and running this race, Shapiro grew a new appreciation for running and running for a greater purpose. 

“Running for my grandpa, it’s bigger than that,” said Shapiro. “When I did my runs, I trained with him in mind. It was nice to have a purpose to it.” 

With this new goal in mind, Shapiro took his time training for this race. With a beginner-level partner, Shapiro was happy to go at a slower pace. He says that he now prefers taking everything in and enjoying the run rather than focusing so much on his speed and time as he did in high school. 

“I’m a very social runner. I enjoy running for the people I am running with– I don’t really enjoy running alone as much,” said Shapiro, “It would be great vibes, we’d just run and talk. We didn’t really care for speed, my speed days are over, so we’d run slow and just talk the whole time.”

Talking with his friends and taking time to appreciate the runs set Shapiro up for a great race. Without having his focus on speed, he took the time throughout the race to think about his grandfather. Looking back on the race, Shapiro remembers being grateful for the experience and this opportunity. 

“It makes me more appreciative that I can still run, and still run the way I can,” said Shapiro. 

“It was the first time since running cross country that I felt like I was running for something bigger than myself.”

Even though his grandfather was thousands of miles away, Shapiro gave him a front-row seat to the race. Throughout the run, Shapiro repeatedly called his grandfather, showing him the beautiful sights along the course and giving him updates on his progress. He states that, despite the distance, it still felt that his grandfather was right there, cheering him on. 

“Honestly, FaceTiming him throughout the run, talking to him throughout the run, made it so special,” said Shapiro.

The Power Of Pioneering

Thank you so much to Justin for running with Project Purple through our Pioneer Program. Signing up for an event through our Pioneer Program not only helps patients in need and funds research efforts, but it also helps share Project Purple with the world. Participating in the Pioneer Program helps lay the groundwork for us to start new teams in new places. When you join us, you are pioneering new paths for this community!

For more information on Project Purple’s Pioneer Program, click here. We are so proud of you Justin!

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