For Travis Russell, the pain of losing his mother to Pancreatic Cancer in October 2011 is still very real. As he talks about losing his mom, Travis pauses as his emotions bubble to the surface. He was reluctant to share his story at first, because every time he has to revisit his mother’s illness, the wounds are reopened. However, Travis knows how important it is to share his family’s story. He knows how few people survive Pancreatic Cancer, and he wants to do anything he can to prevent another family from experiencing a loss to this devastating illness.
For much of her life, Carole had been a stay-at-home mom who cared for her children Travis and Tara. She had dedicated herself to taking care of others. “Mom always put other people before herself. She really never did anything just for herself. She had been a Stay-At-Home mom because that is what she thought she needed to do.” Carole had enjoyed being involved in her children’s activities. When Travis was young, Carole helped him to pursue his interest in acting and theater. She was always around to support her children in any endeavor they chose. She looked for ways to give her kids experiences that would impact their lives positively. Travis jokes that his family’s dysfunction is that it was so completely functional. He remembers his parents going on dates and demonstrating what a healthy and loving relationship looked like.
As her kids grew into adulthood, Carole returned to college. Ironically, she and Travis graduated from college at the same time. After graduation, Carole opened up an Interior Design business. Travis recalls how his mom often lost money on her design jobs, because her she was so kindhearted that she did not feel right charging enough to make a profit.
In 2010, Carole began experiencing some abdominal bloating and vague gastrointestinal symptoms. She saw a doctor who believed that her gallbladder was the problem. Carole went in for surgery to remove her gallbladder. However, when the doctor opened her abdomen up, he realized right away that her gallbladder was not the problem. The doctor immediately closed Carole back up and told the family, “She appears to have cancer.” Travis began researching cancers of the abdomen. He remembers thinking, “As long as it is not Pancreatic Cancer, we can deal with it.” When the diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer was actually confirmed, the doctor told the Russell family that Carole had three months to live. To Travis, the news felt like a physical blow, as much an emotional one.
Carole had never been one to drink alcohol or smoke and she had eaten a very healthy diet. Travis chuckles as he remembers how when his mom first received her diagnosis in April 2011, she exclaimed, “But I eat blueberries for breakfast every morning!” Travis went through a stage of wondering, “Why us? Why her? Why did this happen to this woman who would do anything for anyone? My mom would not do anything to hurt any living creature.”
The Russell family sought care locally, but ultimately ended up traveling to a cancer center where they felt their mom would receive a holistic approach in her treatment. She received traditional chemotherapy, but the cancer center also helped address her dietary, mental and spiritual needs. Carole believed in miracles and she truly thought that a miracle would come through to save her life. She was so optimistic that she would wake up one day and the cancer would be gone.
During her darkest, Carole derived strength from focusing on her beloved grandchildren, Treyson and Haylie. She considered her grandchildren to be her “crowning achievement in life”. She wanted nothing more than to see them grow up, graduate from school and get married.
Carole received excellent care, but the cancer continued its march throughout her body. She was in a great deal of pain from the tumors that filled her abdomen. Travis remembers how the narcotics she had to take for her pain wreaked havoc with her digestive system. Carole became extremely constipated and the pain medication rendered her unable to be mentally present. Those final weeks were extremely difficult for both patient and family. For Carole and the Russell family, there was no miracle on the horizon. Six months after her diagnosis, Carole Russell passed away, leaving behind Ron, her husband of 44 years, her children and her beloved grandchildren.
Travis was devastated by the loss of his mother. As time passed, he began thinking that after his mom’s experience, he should do more to take care of his own health. His wife, Wendy, had won a trip to hike Mt. Elbert in Colorado. Travis had been doing strength training and cardio as part of his fitness routine, but he thought it would be a good idea to incorporate running into his training plan. Wendy had already been running in preparation for her adventure, so Travis decided to join her on a 1.5 mile run. Travis recalls, “I ended up on all fours thinking I was going to throw up. It was an eye-opening experience, because I found the one area where I was not in shape at all.”
Travis decided that he would start running. He began a run/walk program and gradually increased the amount of time that he spent running versus walking. As he made progress, he felt better about running and his overall health. Knowing that pancreatic cancer had struck his mother out of the blue, he wanted to do all he could to take care of himself. He enjoyed the days that he and Wendy ran together. They chatted and bonded as they ran. However, he also truly enjoyed the longer runs that he did alone. It was on these solo runs that he could think and work through deeper issues that he was grappling with.
Travis soon started entering races. In May of 2014, he entered the Lincoln half-marathon. He kept seeing signs for Project Purple while out on the race course. At the time, he had no idea what the organization was, but he figured that it had to do with Pancreatic Cancer. He decided that if he was going to run any more half-marathons, come hell or high water, he was going to run with the Project Purple team. This year, Travis is fulfilling that goal of running with the Project Purple Lincoln team. He will again run the half-marathon, this time officially in honor of his mother.
This year, in the build-up to the Lincoln half-marathon, Travis wears his Project Purple gear to remind himself of why he is running. While he is out training, he often thinks about his mom and he finds that this makes his running more meaningful. Travis still struggles with talking about his mother’s experiences with Pancreatic Cancer. Every time he tells her story, he feels like he is reliving those horrible six months that his beloved mother was sick. Yet he knows that he must keep talking about the devastating effects of Pancreatic Cancer. He says, “I know I cannot help my mom any longer, but if I can do something to help another family, you better believe I am going to do it.”
You can support Travis on his efforts to help others affected by Pancreatic Cancer by visiting his crowdrise fundraising page: