Royal Oak Woman Takes on Fight to Boost Pancreatic Cancer Research
Gael Sandoval lost her husband, Ricky, who was the security director for the Detroit Lions, to the disease two years ago. Tuesday, she visits Washington, DC, to tell lawmakers why they need to put more resources toward funding and research.
Gael Sandoval found herself leafing through instruction manuals one recent night when her newly installed sprinkler system refused to give her lawn a much-needed drink of water after a long day of 90-degree heat.
“If I don't get this fixed, I'm going to have a yard full of dead grass,” the Royal Oak resident said. “It's one of the things my husband used to do and now I just have to learn to do it.”
Sandoval's husband Ricky Sandoval lost his battle to pancreatic cancer on July 2, 2009 – 37 months after his diagnosis and just two days after his 49th birthday.
Sandoval took action less than a year after losing her beloved husband, who was director of security for the Detroit Lions, signing on as an affiliate for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) and advocating for funding, better research and treatment.
“Because of the nature of this disease, you get a passion to change it,” she said.
Volunteers from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network who share Sandoval's passion are preparing to be in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday for the organization's fifth annual Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day to meet with members of the House and Senate to share their personal pancreatic cancer stories and request additional federal funding for research, said Colleen Kmiecik, the Detroit affiliate spokeswoman for Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
This year, 10 volunteers from Michigan are attending the event, including Sandoval, Kmiecik said.
“Gael and the others are volunteers who are paying their own way and taking time off work to express their concern – they are not paid lobbyists,” Kmiecik said. “It’s a great example of how our government works and the access we have to our representatives, and the ability we have to ask for what we want.”
Sandoval considers herself in good company at PanCAN. “We have an incredibly passionate group of people here in Michigan," she said. "It's an incredible group of people to be fighting with.”
'I'm determined to save the pancreas'
Sandoval's friends wondered if she would stay in Michigan after she lost her husband, Ricky, or move back to her hometown of New Orleans. “Without fail, I say: 'I love it here. I'm staying,'” she said. “I have the best neighbors and a job I love.”
Sandoval is the senior account manager of the Ford Global Walk Team at the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on juvenile diabetes cure, research and development services with which Edsel Ford and his wife Cynthia are actively involved.
“I'm determined to save the pancreas,” she joked.
It's a determination many saw while Ricky Sandoval was fighting pancreatic cancer, which was a longer battle than most are able to take on. Known as the deadliest form of cancer, pancreatic cancer typically has a one-year survival rate of 75 percent and a five-year survival rate of only 6 percent, according to PanCAN.
“The norm is three to six months,” Sandoval said. “Symptoms are pretty vague: lower back pain, loss of weight, sometimes stomach pain and jaundice.”
These symptoms are often overlooked or misdiagnosed. Sandoval was initially misdiagnosed with acid reflux.
There are many obstacles that keep doctors from diagnosing pancreatic cancer and get in the way of treatment, Sandoval said, including:
no specific known marker.
awkward position of the pancreas deep in the abdomen. Part of the organ is found between the stomach and the spine and the other part is nestled in the curve of the small intestine.
a high density that makes the pancreas an organ in which a tumor may be harder to detect.
lower blood flow that makes the pancreas a difficult organ to penetrate with drugs and chemotherapy.
It's sad that it takes a well-known figure like her husband to raise awareness for such a devastating disease, Sandoval said. The death of actor Patrick Swayze helped shed a little light on the issue, she said, but for the most part if people aren't touched personally by the disease, they are unaware of it.
“One of the challenges we face is that with so few survivors, so there aren't any advocates,” she said.
Another challenge is survivors are often the ones who are left to take on the mission.
“It's hard because it hits so quickly and it's so devastating that people don't have the emotion for the fight,” she said.
Going to Washington
Some 600 people from across the country are attending Advocacy Day with Sandoval with a mission to educate legistors about the urgent need for an increase in federal pancreatic cancer research funding and ask them to co-sponsor the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act.
The bill would create a path for true progress by encouraging targeted research efforts, developing a cadre of committed scientists and promoting physician and public awareness, according to a summary of the bill provided by PanCAN.
Sandoval said when her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2006, only 10 scientists in the whole country were dedicated to researching the disease.
“We need to step up funding,” she said, explaining that if researchers were given grants that the field of study would look more attractive to doctors and scientists. “You need sustained grant funding and we don't get it.”
Federal funding is directly correlated to survival rate, Kmiecik said. Of the top five cancer killers (lung, colon, breast, pancreatic and prostate), pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate and also received the lowest amount of federal funding.
Today, there are no drugs designed specifically to fight pancreatic cancer, Sandoval said.
“You go to the doctor and you are told you can do nothing,” Sandoval said. “With thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma ... although they can be aggressive, for the most part they are detectable and treatable.”
The group went to Washington last year to fight for the bill, which has since been amended, Sandoval said. This year, there are new legislators and Sandoval hopes to get them on board.
“We need to fund this effort in a way that gives a strategic plan to battle pancreatic cancer,” she said.
How to help
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network urges others to support the cause. Volunteer, donate or learn about local fundraising events at its website here. Also get a list of elected officials to write to in support of boosting funding and research for pancreatic cancer. The group suggests calling on June 14 in support of advocacy day. See how to help here.
The group will be hosting its third annual annual walk at the Detroit Zoo on Oct. 9.
“In 2009, we had 2,000 people,” Kmiecik said. “Last year we had 4,000 people and we're hoping for 5,000 people this year.”
Sandoval remembers calling for more advocates during the first walk at the zoo. “It was a great day to see that sea of purple,” she said. “At the closing ceremony I thanked everyone and told everyone to bring a friend the next year.”
Sure enough, the next year the number doubled.
“I'm not even going to say what my goal is this year,” she joked.
To say Sandoval is determined is an understatement, so to have lost the battle to save her dear husband was a terrible blow. Her strength is tested every day by her keen sense of loss.
Gael and her niece, Marcie Levey of Royal Oak, are very close – more like sisters. "Gael and Rick had an inspiring marriage, a partnership that I think is rare. They were one in everyone sense of the word," Levey said. "Their fight throughout Ricky’s battle with pancreatic cancer was a reflection of their great love for one another. And the magnitude of Gael’s loss reflects that love."
Sandoval said she finds herself asking for help more than she would like to. After a torn rotator cuff kept her from doing some yard work, neighbors stepped in to help take care of her Royal Oak yard, something Ricky Sandoval had always been happy to do.
Even while receiving chemotherapy all day Mondays and every other Tuesday, Sandoval said her husband would still put in more than 70 hours a week at work and come home and ask what she needed. “He would say that was still slacking,” she said. He never called in sick. “He never complained," she said.
The Lions named its practice field Sandoval Field a week before Ricky lost his hard-fought battle.
And Gael called on her neighbors once again.
“With the help – and strength – of my wonderful neighbor Ken my grass is saved!” she said later.
Whether it's fixing a sprinkler system or planning a fundraising walk at the zoo, Sandoval is learning to continue the fight as her husband did, with the help and support of friends and co-workers. It was a fight Sandoval said she knew she had to take on after watching the way her husband galvanized the Lions organization in support of pancreatic cancer research and advocacy.
“I thought, if he can fight like that, then I can fight for him,” she said.