Project Purple Runner Julie Thielen

Julie Thielen will be running the Denver Rock ‘n’ roll half-marathon to honor her sister Dina, who was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in the summer of 2012. Julie had first heard of Project Purple when she ran the Lincoln half-marathon in 2015. She saw that Project Purple had a large team for the race and was disappointed that she had not signed up to be a part of it. She resolved to run for the charity organization at a future race. In May, she decided that she would sign up for the Denver team, because she had developed a love for the city when she lived in Estes Park, CO. Additionally, the race is within driving distance from her home in Lincoln, NE. Julie and Dina had planned a girls’ weekend in Denver. Dina planned to come along to cheer for Julie and the two women looked forward to spending race weekend together. Unfortunately, Dina took a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse. Dina passed away on June 26, 2015. Now Julie will be running to honor the sister she lost much too soon to Pancreatic Cancer.

Dina & Julie
Dina & Julie

In 2012, 43-year-old Dina Luthans began experiencing stomach and back pain. Her doctors initially thought that she had gallstones. However, an MRI revealed a mass in Dina’s pancreas. Dina was admitted to a hospital in her hometown of Kearney, NE. She stayed there for five days and soon underwent a biopsy, Dina was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. Her tumor was wrapped around a major artery in the pancreas, rendering Dina ineligible for potentially curative surgery. Dina’s family was distraught by the news of Dina’s diagnosis. Julie says, “It was devastating. For the next month, everything seemed to be still. We wondered, ‘how can the world still be going on around us?’”

Dina with husband Kyle and children Emma & Will
Dina with husband Kyle and children Emma & Will

Dina was given a combination of chemotherapy and radiation in hopes that they could shrink the tumor enough to attempt the Whipple procedure. She responded very well to the protocol. Eventually, her doctors felt that they would be able to try the Whipple. Unfortunately, when she went into surgery, they found that they were not going to be able to remove her entire tumor. Following her recovery, Dina continued to research options to remove her tumor or find new and advanced treatment options. She never accepted it when she was told, “This is all that can be done”. She located Dr. Eric Kortz, a doctor in Denver, CO who performs what is called the NanoKnife procedure. The NanoKnife applies very targeted electrical current to the tumor. The current damages the cell membranes, causing the cells to die off. After receiving the NanoKnife treatments, the medical team told Dina that they believed her tumor was dead.

While her family was devastated by the news of her diagnosis, Dina seemed to take it all in stride. Once her treatment plan was established, the fight was on. She knew what the plan and goals were, and she never wavered. It wasn’t easy by any means, but she was focused on living. Julie explains, “She has handled this better than anyone else. Dina always found perspective in her situation, her purpose in life and how to live it to the fullest. Her concern and focus has always been with her kids, her husband and her family. She has never asked, ‘Why me?’”

The Luthans Family
The Luthans Family

Dina met her husband Kyle when they were both in high school. The couple dated, married and had two children. Dina’s daughter is a sophomore in high school and her son is in 7th grade. Dina taught first grade, but eventually had to give up her full-time position so that she could concentrate on her treatments and her family. She continued to substitute teach within the district and she volunteered within the community. While Dina experienced some dark days, she was always able to find the good in life. Julie says, “She did not always share how difficult things were, because she was always thinking about other people. She was a very kind, caring, wonderful person.”

Over time, Dina learned that her cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She had to continue chemotherapy treatments keep her cancer at bay. Dina had quarterly scans to assess her tumors, and to make sure the chemotherapy was doing its job. A few months back, she changed chemotherapy protocols. Unfortunately, she did not respond as well to the new treatment. She became very nauseated from the new drugs and lost a considerable amount of weight. At the beginning of June, Dina’s doctors suggested that with her being stable, that she take a break from her treatments for the summer to help regain her strength and health. They planned to start a new treatment plan in the fall.  No one suspected at that time that she would pass away just two weeks later.

Dina with members of the extended family
Dina with members of the extended family

Julie says, “It has been a tough time. We were all caught off guard by this. We thought she had more time. It is the harsh and sad reality of Pancreatic Cancer. She lived an amazing life and touched so many people. The support from her community and many friends has been amazing, and we are all so appreciative. She was so loved. I know that she would want each and every one of us to get up every day and work to make this world a better place, just the way she did. I miss her terribly, we talked to each other every day, multiple times a day, but I know she is watching over me.”


Julie & Dina at a Goo Goo Dolls concert.
Dina & Julie at a Goo Goo Dolls concert.

Now, instead of spending the weekend celebrating with Dina, Julie will be running to honor her life. It will be a fitting tribute, as Julie ran her first 10k with Dina many years ago. Julie does not consider herself to be athletic, despite having run several 5ks, 10ks and three half-marathons. She played tennis while growing up and Dina was on the high school dance team. When Dina married her high school sweetheart, Kyle, they moved to the east coast where she got into running. Julie started running in large part because of Dina, and now she will continue to run because of Dina. Julie has run for other charities before, but after seeing Project Purple at the Lincoln Marathon, she knew that she wanted to run with the organization. She says, “I noticed that with Project Purple, you really feel that you are part of a family and working together as a team.”


Dina & Julie at Julie's wedding
Dina & Julie at Julie’s wedding

Julie is still processing the loss of her sister. Dina set an example for everyone by living her life to the fullest, and by fighting her cancer with grace and dignity. As Julie watched her sister fight Pancreatic Cancer, she learned to truly value her life and her relationships. “It is unfortunate that it takes something like this to really make you appreciate life and not take it for granted,” Julie says.


For three years, Julie watched her sister fight, and she learned to appreciate every single day that they had together. Please help Julie honor Dina’s memory by contributing to her Project Purple fundraiser. Click on the link below to donate:

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