Project Purple runner Ashley Driemeier

“Mom was my best friend. I could tell her absolutely anything. We never had any secrets from one another my whole life. She wanted us to be open and honest with her and she was with us. She was the most important person to our whole family. She was our backbone,” Ashley Driemeier says of her mother, Linda Wheatley. In 2015, Ashley lost her beloved mother to pancreatic cancer. Before her mother passed away, Ashley made her a promise. That promise ultimately led Ashley to join forces with Project Purple in efforts to fight back against pancreatic cancer.

Ashley & mom

Linda Wheatley and her family lived in a very small, close-knit community in Missouri. Ashley explains, “My mom was a kindergarten teacher for 31 years. Everyone knew her as the kindergarten teacher. Her whole life revolved around her kids and her class. Her students were her kids. She treated them just like she treated her own children.”

In July, 2013, Linda began experiencing vague symptoms of illness. She had stomach pains and soon had difficulty keeping her meals down. Her doctor struggled to figure out what was wrong. Eventually, Linda was diagnosed with diabetes. She was placed on insulin to help stabilize her blood sugar levels. Unfortunately, Linda continued experiencing other symptoms. When she became jaundiced, her doctor thought that perhaps her gallbladder was the problem. On November, 2013, when the surgeon opened her up to remove her gallbladder, he discovered a tumor in her pancreas was blocking her bile duct. Ashley remembers feeling devastated at hearing what her family was now facing. “My mom was scheduled for gallbladder surgery. Something that was supposed to be a fairly simple procedure turned our world upside down. But, the doctors gave us hope and came up with a plan to fight it. My mom wanted to do anything and everything she could do to fight it, and she did.”

Linda Wheatley
Linda Wheatley

Linda underwent a Whipple surgery at the end of November. The head of her pancreas, part of her stomach, part of her small intestines and several lymph nodes were removed. The surgeon believed that all of the cancer had been excised from her body. No cancer had been present in any of her lymph nodes, nor did it appear to have spread outside of the pancreas. As a precaution, Linda had six months of chemotherapy following her surgery.  However, her medical team was confident that her cancer had been local and had not spread. “All of her scans came back perfect. We thought she had beat it!” Ashley explains.

Ashley, Linda & the extended family
Ashley, Linda & the extended family

Following her chemotherapy, in July, 2014, Linda and her husband, Drew, took a trip to Colorado to visit family. Linda was experiencing abdominal pain that she believed was caused by her incision. Unfortunately, her pain became so debilitating that they had to cut their vacation short and return home.  She had another CT scan and that is when it was discovered that her pancreatic cancer had spread to her liver. She had four tumors in her liver, and surgery was not a treatment option.

Linda began a new chemotherapy regimen. Unfortunately, her cancer was growing so aggressively that the chemotherapy could not slow its growth. Linda tried every chemotherapy option the doctors presented, to no avail. Linda’s condition deteriorated quickly. By February, 2015, she entered hospice. Ashley says, “Once the cancer reached her liver, it seemed nothing would slow it down. She tried every type of chemo available for this situation. We even tried to get her into a clinical trial but nothing was open. By this time, she was very sick. We decided it was best to start hospice. Her birthday was March 3rd, 2015. That was the last time we all got to go out anywhere with her. She fought as long and hard as she could and never gave up or complained.” Linda passed away in March, 2015. Ashley was by her mother’s side for the final ten days of her life. She remembers this time as something she will cherish forever. “We talked about everything! I was blessed with an amazing mom and best friend.”

Ashley's extended family

Ashley made a promise to her mother in those final days. “Near the end, I told her it was OK to go and that I would continue her fight. Mom smiled and said, “Only if you promise.” That is a promise that I will never break!” It is because of her promise to her mother that Ashley became involved with Project Purple.  Ashley started running in June, 2012 when a friend asked her to train for a half-marathon. “It quickly became my hobby and my passion,” she explains.  A funeral director by trade, Ashley finds running to be a great way to help her relax after working long days in a fulfilling yet stressful career. She has now run five half-marathons and numerous races of shorter distances.

Ashley always wanted to run the St. Jude’s Half-Marathon, because it benefits childhood cancer. When she discovered Project Purple and its Pioneer Program, she had even more incentive to run. Through the Pioneer Program, runners can fundraise at any race of their choosing in support of Project Purple. On December 5th, 2015, she completed the St. Jude’s Half-Marathon in a new PR time of 2:27. Ashley is ecstatic that her hard work and training paid off. She loved running the St. Jude’s half-marathon and says, “It was truly an amazing experience. Memphis is a wonderful place to run. There were over 20,000 runners. The course took us through the St. Jude Hospital campus where some of the patients and their families were cheering us on. They were such an inspiration. I know my mom would have been proud and that is what kept me going. She was with me every step of the way!”

Ashley running in the St. Jude Half-Marathon
Ashley running in the St. Jude Half-Marathon

Ashley describes her experience fundraising and running for Project Purple in glowing terms. “Everyone at Project Purple has been so awesome. They really made me feel like family.” Though she was initially intimidated to fundraise, she was amazed by the outpouring of generosity that she received. “I didn’t know if I could do it but everyone has been so supportive. I have been very humbled by everyone giving so much money. I tripled my initial goal. It has been amazing.”

Ashley at the St. Jude Half-Marathon finish line
Ashley at the St. Jude Half-Marathon finish line

Though Ashley is still devastated by the loss of her mother and best friend, she is committed to fulfilling the promise she made to her mom. Her running and fundraising for Project Purple will help continue the fight against pancreatic cancer. There is still time to donate to Ashley’s Project Purple fundraiser. Please click the following link and make a tax-deductible donation to help Ashley beat pancreatic cancer!

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