Matt Greco was in sixth grade when his family received devastating news. Matt remembers sitting beside his two younger siblings on the couch in the year 2000. His parents informed them as gently as they could that their lives were about to change drastically. Matt’s father, Alfonso Greco, had been diagnosed with a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. Though the Greco kids did understand it that day, their father’s 8 year battle against his cancer would impact their entire childhood. Now, 15 years later, Matt Greco is training to honor his father by running the Chicago Marathon with the Project Purple team.
Pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors, or PNETs, as they are often referred to, affect the endocrine cells of the pancreas. Though the chemotherapy protocol is different from it would be for the more common form of pancreatic cancer, pancreatic adenocarcinoma, the surgeries used to treat both forms of cancer are the same. Al Greco was sent first to the local medical center so that he could undergo the Whipple procedure, which removes the head of the pancreas in hopes of rendering the patient cancer-free. The Whipple is a very complicated operation that can only be performed by the most highly skilled surgeons. Unfortunately, the surgeon at the local hospital was unable to complete Al’s Whipple. The cancer was determined to be too close to vital blood vessels, so Al was sent home.
Al did not give up, however. He and his wife Margaret searched for a medical team that was willing to attempt the procedure. They found a surgeon who was willing to attempt the Whipple at Sloan Kettering in New York City. The couple traveled to New York from their hometown of Cleveland, leaving their children in the care of relatives. This time, the surgery was a success. His recovery was challenging, however, and Alphonso remained in the hospital for a month following his Whipple.
For a number of years, Al continued to enjoy relatively good health. But In 2006, the family received another blow. His cancer was back, this time in his lymph nodes. Al started immediately on chemotherapy and stayed in treatment for the next two years until he passed away on January 2, 2008. He left behind the love of his life, Margaret, and their three children, Matt, Therese and Joey.
Al was a devoted family man whose family and family were the central focus of his life. He was the first and only man who Margaret had ever dated. They were Catholics who shared a strong devotion to God. Al always told his family, “The family that prays together stays together.” Matt says, “Our faith was the backbone of us getting through everything. We said the rosary in the car more often when I was a kid than we listened to music.”
Providing for his family was one of Al’s top priorities in life. When he returned to his home in Cleveland following his Whipple, he returned to his job as a pharmacist as soon as he was strong enough. He worked all through his illness, even while he was receiving chemotherapy treatments. It was during the final month of his life that Margaret put her foot down and insisted that he stay home and take a medical leave of absence.
Matt was just 20 years old when his father passed away, while Therese was 17 and Joey was only 14 years old. Matt was in his junior year at the local university. He had chosen to remain close to home so that he could enjoy whatever time he might have left with his father. Matt remembers Al as a loving and committed father who made time for his children, despite a busy work schedule. Matt recalls, “He would sometimes come home from work at 10 pm and he would still make time to help me with my homework.” Matt continues, “One of our favorite things to do was to go to the Cleveland Indians games together. He also frequently played catch with my brother and me in the front yard. He was the epitome of what you want your dad to be. He always made time for us.”
Al was engaged in his fight against pancreatic cancer for most of the Greco kids’ childhood. Matt says, “It forced all three of us to grow up faster than most of our friends.” There were times that the Greco kids missed out on activities because they either did not have the funds or the time to participate. However, having a father who was fighting cancer became “normal” for the kids. It was all they really ever knew. Al and Margaret did all they could to draw the family closer as they faced cancer together. Matt feels that his parents love and support helped him and his siblings cope with their father’s cancer battle.
Just recently, at the age of 28, Matt Greco started running. He was an athletic young man who played football in college, but he always hated running. One day after graduating from college, Matt realized that he needed to lose weight or his long-term health was going suffer. Over the past few years, he has managed to lose nearly 100 pounds through dietary modification and exercise. He began riding his bike as part of his exercise program and found that he really enjoyed it. Matt and his friend Luke participated in a 63 mile ALS bike ride to honor a teacher who had passed away from the disease.
Matt enjoyed the ride so much that he began thinking about what epic event he could do next. Luke and Matt decided that they would both run a marathon, and they settled on the Chicago Marathon, where Matt was living at the time. Matt quickly applied for and was accepted to the Project Purple Chicago Marathon team. While Matt initially found marathon training to be difficult, the more he runs, the more he is growing to enjoy it. “I could see myself running more and more,” Matt says. “It has become addictive.”
Matt feels that raising money for a cause that is near and dear to his heart will make the marathon a more special experience. “When I was accepted onto the team, I was pumped up. I felt like I won the lottery!” Matt continues, “I have done a lot of other charity work, but this is by far the most enjoyable. I have had the most fun working with Project Purple. Everyone I have been in contact with from Project Purple has been very receptive and supportive.”
“I would give anything to see my dad for even just an hour right now,” Matt says. “I wanted my dad to buy me my first beer and walk my sister down the aisle, but obviously that did not happen. Because of my dad’s cancer battle, I have learned not to take things for granted and to appreciate what I have. My dad was a loving and resilient man who would do anything for anyone who meant something to him. He always found time to help people out.” It is fitting that Matt is choosing to honor his father by helping others as he runs and raises money to help those affected by pancreatic cancer.