Derrick Lenz remembers how life changed for his family in the blink of an eye one day in 2005. Derrick Lenz’ sister Larissa Lenz went for a run and was struck by a drunk driver. Her parents, Lawrence and Linda Lenz, met Larissa at the hospital where she was having her injuries evaluated. Fortunately, Larissa’s injuries were only minor. However, while she sat under the fluorescent lights of the hospital, she noticed something strange about her father’s eyes. Larissa said, “Dad, your eyes look yellow!”
Lawrence (“Larry”) Lenz’s own father had died from Pancreatic Cancer 30 years before. Linda Lenz remembered very clearly the devastating effects that the disease had on the Lenz family. As soon as she realized that Larry was exhibiting signs of jaundice, which can be a symptom of Pancreatic Cancer, Linda knew she had real reason to be concerned about her husband.
Larry was quickly sent for a biopsy and within a week was undergoing the Whipple procedure. Derrick recalls how the family considered themselves to be somewhat fortunate. Because Larry’s tumor was in the head of the pancreas, his bile duct became blocked, resulting in jaundice. Since Larry presented early on with jaundice, he was able to have the surgery that is not a possibility for most pancreatic cancer patients. Derrick’s grandfather’s tumor had been in the tail of the pancreas. Tumors in the tail of the pancreas typically will not show symptoms until they have spread outside of the pancreas, rendering the patient ineligible for potentially curative surgery.
Though his tumor was wrapped around the portal vein, his surgery went smoothly and the doctor felt optimistic about Larry’s future. Derrick remembers so clearly about how worried the family had been while his father was in the operating room. As was his nature, Larry insisted that the family all go home so they could rest that first night after his surgery. Derrick remembers how difficult it was for him to leave his father’s bedside that first night. He recalls, “I tried to imagine what my dad must be going through. The fact that Dad cared more about his family getting rest shows what kind of guy he was.”
Prior to his diagnosis, Larry had been very healthy and fit. He enjoyed participating in triathlons. He was not your typical triathlete, however. While other competitors wheeled out their $10,000 bicycles and their buoyant wetsuits, Larry rode his old bike and did not bother with a wetsuit at all. One time, right before the start of a race, he lit up a cigar. His friend, slightly aghast, asked, “Larry, what in the world are you doing?” Larry replied, “I am psyching out the competition!”
Larry demonstrated a sense of commitment and duty from early in his life. Growing up, he was actively involved in the Boy Scouts. Larry was a very patriotic young man who yearned to serve his country. He attended the Virginia Military Institute for college, and hoped to serve in the Vietnam War. He tried to get his appointment, only be told that the military would not accept him due to a back injury.
Not being able to follow his life’s passion was disappointing. However, Larry was not one to wallow in self-pity. He had a family he wanted to provide for, so Larry switched gears. He decided to return to school to earn his Master’s in Business Administration. While Larry went on to make a career in finance, he never did lose his love of military history. He devoured books about military history and had a collection of model soldiers. While engaged in his job in finance, Larry returned to school to get a degree in history. He eventually started a second career as a History teacher, and had begun work on a military history book. Writing a history book was a lifelong dream of Larry’s that he was finally able to pursue.
Larry had to put his second career on hold, however. In the time following his surgery, he had a recurrence of his Pancreatic Cancer. Larry had to endure chemotherapy and radiation treatments. While many families lose their loved ones with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer in a matter of weeks or months, the Lenz family enjoyed three years following Larry’s initial diagnosis. Derrick says, “Many people think, ‘What is six months?’ But those three years we had with my dad meant everything to our family.”
During those three years, Derrick and his wife, Erin, had Aubrey, who was their first child and Larry’s first grandchild. Derrick and Erin also helped to proofread Larry’s history book. They sent it off to approximately 100 publishing companies. The first 99 rejected the manuscript, but the final one accepted it. They were able to get the first printed copies to Larry just a few weeks before he passed away. If Larry had not had that time, his life-long dream would have gone unrealized. Even though Derrick struggled greatly with his father’s illness and untimely death, he realizes what a gift those last three years were for the whole Lenz family. Derrick says, “There is an empty place in my heart where he used to be, but the time we had together was so meaningful.”
Derrick Lenz, a competitive soccer and tennis player through his youth, took up running in college as a way to maintain his fitness. In 2013, Derrick and his wife Erin decided to run their first half-marathon together. The couple ran almost the entire race together and finished within minutes of each other.
Derrick found he really enjoyed the half-marathon distance. He ran two more half-marathons in the ensuing months, taking his finish time down from just under two hours to 1:40.
Derrick and Erin live in the Boston area and have historically always attended the Boston Marathon as spectators. Derrick was intrigued by the thought of running a marathon. Running for a charity in the Boston Marathon made sense to Derrick. This is a race that has been a big part of his life for many years. Derrick applied to be a part of the Project Purple team because Pancreatic Cancer is the one cause he is feels passionately about.
Derrick is currently in his final weeks of training for the big event. Derrick says, “The training has been tough. We have had over 100 inches of snow here.” Fueled by a cause that he cares deeply about, Derrick has managed to get in several 20 mile runs, despite the record-breaking snow. He has finally gotten to the point where he truly enjoys the long runs. Derrick is also looking forward to his young daughters seeing him cross the finish line. He wants them to understand how dedication and hard work help us to fulfill our goals and dreams in life.
Derrick still feels the stinging pain of losing his father. His dad was who he looked to as a role model. He sought him out for advice. Losing Larry Lenz was a huge blow for the entire family, and that pain will never disappear. Larry was not there to walk Larissa down the aisle at her wedding. He never got to meet Zoe, Derrick and Erin’s younger daughter. Linda will not get to experience her golden years with the man she was married to for more than 30 years. Derrick and Larissa also wonder about any potential genetic predisposition to Pancreatic Cancer that may be lurking in their bodies. Still, Derrick chooses to focus on what their family gained from those three years that they got to enjoy with Larry. Derrick explains that as time goes on, “You get some distance from it, and you gain some perspective. I now realize how fortunate we were to have those three years together.”
Please support Derrick’s Boston Marathon fundraising efforts by following this link to his Crowdrise site: