California native Shawn Veronese remembers how her start in running almost got her grounded. At the age of six, she and her neighbor were riding bikes. They stumbled onto the local Jr. High where an open Track Meet was taking place. She participated in every event she could and won five ribbons. When she got home, her Mom was upset because she had no idea where Shawn had been all day. Of course, when she showed her Mom a fist full of running ribbons, it was impossible to punish her.
Shawn remembers a childhood of playing every sport she could, just like her big brother Dan. In the early 70’s there were no girls’ sports teams. Shawn was 1 of 3 girls who played in a Boys’ Soccer League. She also played basketball, fast pitch softball and, of course, she ran. Throughout school, Shawn enjoyed sprint races such as the 220 and 440 relays. Running distance made zero sense when she could arrive at her destination much sooner in a sprint. After spending 14 years in the Pacific Northwest she relocated to Orange County, California in 1986.
On her Step-Father Al’s 80th birthday, Shawn recalls him calling to cancel their family celebration. Shawn’s mother Virginia was feeling tired and was having some issues eating. Virginia was extremely itchy and her skin and was a deep yellow. The summer prior, Virginia had her gallbladder removed. Shawn recalls questioning at that time why it was necessary for the procedure. Both Virginia and Shawn were Googling to connect the dots for answers to her Mom’s discomfort. Shawn recalls asking her Mom if there were any unique or more specific symptoms and yes, Virginia stated, “I have absolutely no interest in drinking my morning coffee”. Her Mom had enjoyed coffee for decades. Shawn suspected Pancreatic Cancer, and figured her Mom did as well, but nothing was mentioned at the time. Virginia sought medical help for her jaundice at UCI Medical Center in Orange, CA. She had a stent placed in her bile duct which was to this day, the most painful of the procedures she’s endured. Virginia underwent testing and was diagnosed with Stage II pancreatic cancer.
Shawn remembers her Mom saying to the Gastroenterologist after receiving the news, “I’ll deal with that later, but what are you going to do to stop this itching?” At that very moment, Virginia first saw how incredibly strong her mother would prove to be throughout her battle against pancreatic cancer.
Virginia’s treatment began with six weeks of chemotherapy. She responded to the treatment well enough that she became one of the “lucky” few with pancreatic cancer who would be eligible for surgery. In December 2012, Virginia had the head of her pancreas removed along with 11 inches of her small intestines via the Whipple surgery. The Whipple is an incredibly complicated surgery, and Virginia’s procedure lasted over 10 hours. She had a bad reaction to the anesthesia that left her in an extremely confused state for 3 days. Shawn remembers that time as being very challenging hated seeing her mother suffer so terribly. But after three tense days, Virginia’s condition rapidly improved and was transferred to a nursing facility. She would spend a total of 40 days in ICU and secondary care. While many Whipple patients experience long-lasting gastric problems, Virginia is fortunate to only experience minimal digestive problems.
Virginia was treated with another round of Chemo and Radiation for 8-10 weeks. Shawn and Virginia traveled to Lourdes, France in October 2013. Virginia wanted to visit Lourdes because she had learned that many people sought healing there. Upon her return to California, lab tests revealed that her Pancreatic Cancer had returned. Her cancer was now determined to be Stage IV. Virginia’s doctors treated her with the chemotherapy combination of Gemzar and the newly approved Abraxane. Virginia experienced many side effects while on this combination of drugs. The side effects, along with lowered immune function, made it difficult for Virginia to receive treatment most weeks. Her tumor markers continued to climb while on this chemotherapy combination. In September of 2014, Virginia made the decision to stop all treatments for her Pancreatic Cancer and enjoy her days without a doctors’ appointment.
Virginia has cancer in her pancreas, her lungs, and in the lymph nodes in her abdomen. Despite the spread of her disease, she continues to enjoy her life. She adopted a 9-year-old Miniature Pinscher in June which has brought much joy into her and Al’s lives.
Virginia’s very strong Irish Catholic faith has given her an immense sense of comfort and strength. She has never expressed anger over her diagnosis. When she ceased treatments in the fall of 2014, it was suggested that she contact hospice. Virginia did not feel that it was time to take that step just yet. At this time, she takes medications to help control her pain, but she still continues to live independently. Shawn feels that her mom’s amazing strength, spirit and her choice to live each day to the fullest has enabled her to continue living as she chooses.
Shawn lives about an hour away from her parents, so she has been an integral part of her mom’s support system throughout her diagnosis and treatment. Shawn wanted to do something positive to help make a difference. Since Shawn has been a runner for 40 years now, it made sense that running would become the avenue through which she would make positive changes in the world. Though her background was as a sprinter, she took up marathon running in the late 90s. Shawn set a goal of running 12 marathons in 12 months in honor of her mother and to create an experience for them both. She’s called her venture “Marathons for Mom”. (www.marathonsformom.com.) Shawn ran Carlsbad, San Diego Rock and Roll, Huntington Beach, Hauling Aspen in Bend, OR, Ventura, Santa Barbara, two marathons in Long Beach, CA, Surf City, Los Angeles, Boston, and Orange County. Shawn dedicated each run to someone who had been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and to someone who had lost their life fighting the battle.
Along the way, Shawn made many connections with others who had been affected by Pancreatic Cancer. At one of the Long Beach marathons, which only had about ten participants, she met a Navy Seal who was running his first marathon. As they ran and chatted, Shawn found out that the brother of one of the Navy Seal’s friends had just passed away from Pancreatic Cancer. Later in her year of running marathons, Shawn met Project Purple founder Dino Verrelli. Both were running the Boston Marathon in order to raise awareness for Pancreatic Cancer. Shawn and Dino shared their stories with one another. Shawn was so impressed with what she learned about Project Purple and its mission that she decided to run with the Project Purple team in November of 2014.
Shawn describes her New York City Marathon experience as “remarkable”.
Four of Shawn’s cousins came with Shawn to New York City, where they looked forward to experiencing the Big Apple, the Marathon and Project Purple.
In 2012, Shawn had come out to New York City to run the marathon, but it had been cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy. So her return in 2014 was even more meaningful for her. What was perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the weekend for Shawn and her family was the Project Purple team dinner. At the dinner, Shawn was amazed by the positive impression she had of the Project Purple organization, her teammates and their families. She was greatly moved by the emotionally powerful connection she had to Dino and Project Purple. She developed a strong bond with the organization and her team members and has made lifelong friends through her experience at the New York City Marathon. She looks forward to being part of the team and running for Project Purple in 2015.
Prior to her mother’s diagnosis, Shawn had been praying to figure out her purpose in life. She feels that through their journey together, she and her mom have developed a new sense of meaning and purpose. Shawn said that as soon as she found out her mother’s diagnosis, she knew she would be the caregiver in the family. She began learning all she could about Pancreatic Cancer so that she could be her mother’s main support system as she moved through her treatments. Along the way, she and Virginia have grown into being best friends and are one another’s biggest fans. Shawn explains, “We trust each other very much when it comes to treatment and choices. I have learned things about my mom that I never knew before. I purposely email my mother because I want that memory of my dialogue with her.” Shawn has kept a collection of their email conversations, Facebook comments and stories of the people she has run for over the past two-and-a-half years that she plans to turn into a book someday. “It is another avenue to keep exposing the effects of this disease and communicate how crucial it is to reach out these patients and their families in a positive way.”
Shawn talks lovingly of her new relationship with her mother. Their mother-daughter bond has deepened as they have navigated Viriginia’s illness together. Shawn says, “It is so powerful. It is something that neither patient or caregiver ever planned, but there is so much beauty in that relationship. It has brought our whole family closer.” She goes on to say that, “There is either living or existing. There are so many people who just exist, but we are truly living.”