Former Gov. Thompson’s brother: ‘For God’s sake Tommy, whatever you do, find a cure’
MADISON, Wis. — More than 55,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year. Survival rates have not improved over decades of treatment and research. It’s the third most deadly cancer in Wisconsin.
The symptoms are often non-existent or vague, like stomach ache, fatigue or weight loss. But this has been a year of unforeseen breakthroughs in the field. A new trial overseas had patients living an average of four-and-a-half years with the disease, which is the longest survival ever demonstrated in pancreatic cancer. University of Wisconsin oncologist Dr. Noelle LoConte was at the 2018 American Society of Clinical Oncology annual meeting in June when the research was unveiled.
The fight to find a cure for pancreatic cancer has a well known advocate now with a deeply personal connection. My conversation with former Gov. @TommyForHealth tonight at 10 on @WISCTV_News3 pic.twitter.com/VXMBQVNfPi
— Susan Siman (@susansiman) August 9, 2018
“I burst into tears during the presentation,” LoConte said. “We have a whole power point of all the negative trials that have ever been done in pancreas cancer. It’s long. Many, many drugs with no impact on survival, so to see such a dramatic improvement is a big win. We were previously telling people two years, maybe three, and now we’re beyond four years for patients that can have surgery. That’s not the majority of patients, but that’s still a home run out of the park.”
Currently, research dedicated to pancreatic cancer receives a mere 2 percent of the federal dollars distributed by the National Cancer Institute, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. There are many reasons why the clinical outcome for pancreatic cancer patients is so much bleaker than for other cancer types. There are no reliable methods to detect the disease early and there are few effective treatment options.
“The analogy I like to give is, with pancreas cancer, we’re where we were with breast cancer in the 1940s,” LoConte said. “If it were solely up to me, the way we would delegate research money is not by who has the most advocates but by where the need is greatest. And arguably, pancreatic and brain cancer are the two at the very top of that list.”
LoConte said pancreatic cancer has few advocates because the five-year survival rate is lingering in the single digits.
“Patients are not living long enough to be their own advocates,” LoConte said. “They have a lot of other things to worry about other than fundraising for cancer research. The families deal with a very traumatic diagnosis and usually a rapid death and the last thing they want to do is keep thinking about that.”
The pancreatic cancer community has a high profile advocate now in Tommy Thompson. The longest-serving governor in Wisconsin history and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration has a deeply personal connection to the disease. He lost two of his siblings and his childhood best friend to pancreatic cancer.
“If you had to pick the nicest child in my family, it would be Artie. The funniest and most naughty was Eddie. Julie got everything because she was a girl, and I was the hardest working,” Thompson said.
At 77 and semi-retired from politics now, Thompson is working on causes he’s passionate about, including fundraising for pancreatic cancer research and prison reform. Thompson said, “pancreatic cancer is such an insidious dastardly disease and nobody has paid that much attention to it over the years. There hasn’t been the dollars for research because it’s such a difficult disease. People can’t find a cure for it and they’d rather not fail, so they go on to some other cancer.”
Thompson’s younger brother Ed, the former mayor of Tomah and one-time Libertarian candidate for governor, was diagnosed during a campaign for state senate.
“He was at a parade and he just went down. He buckled over,” Thompson said. “His stomach and back were hurting, and he thought it was just indigestion or stomach flu or something. Ed was a veteran, so he was up at the Veteran’s Hospital in Tomah. Doctors finally discovered it was pancreatic cancer.”
Doctors told Ed he had probably had six months to live.
“It devastated us. Eddie was the comedian,” Thompson said. “He was the glue that all of us loved to be around because he enjoyed life so much. To have this powerful man that was so strong come down with an illness he couldn’t defeat was devastating. He thought he could beat it. He thought he’d be the first one to beat it. He tried everything and to this day, I’m still upset we weren’t able to get him into an experimental program.”
Less than two years later, Thompson’s brother Arthur, who was known as Artie, received the same devastating diagnosis.
“Artie didn’t fight it as hard as Eddie and Artie went a lot faster,” Thompson said. “Artie died eight months after the diagnosis. On top of that, my farming partner Ervin Schulz, who grew up with me, died of pancreatic cancer in the same time period. Two brothers and my farming partner and best friend died of pancreatic cancer. It is so painful.”
Thompson’s immediate family has also been affected by cancer.
“We’ve got a big C on our back. My wife Sue Ann had breast cancer and started the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation,” Thompson said. “My daughter Kelli has had breast cancer and had her breasts removed. My daughter Tommi has had breast cancer and thyroid cancer. I’ve had skin cancer, and my mother died of melanoma.”
It’s all made Thompson more determined to fulfill a promise he made to his brother Ed. Thompson said: “My brother Eddie said, ‘for God’s sake Tommy, whatever you do, find a cure for this disease.’ He said that not too long before he passed. He grabbed me by the hand and he said “find a cure for this. It’s not going to help me but find a cure other people. So, I will.”
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