When Adrienne Arenson accompanied her husband, Nathan, to St. Clair Hospital for his chemotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer, she noticed something about the literature available for families in the waiting area.
“I noticed there were pamphlets for every kind of cancer you can think of,” the Scott Township resident recalled, “but no pancreatic cancer.”
There was too little research available on the subject, and too little funding as well, she said.
So when her husband died 14 years ago, the Arenson family — Adrienne and her four kids — went to work raising money for pancreatic cancer research. They started an annual basketball tournament at Chartiers Valley High School, which brought in celebrity athletes sand gave away big prizes.
Last year, the Nathan Arenson Fund for Pancreatic Cancer Research finally passed the $1 million fundraising mark — that’s money raised not by a corporate style foundation, but by a single family that cared enough to try.
This year, the 14th annual Hoops tournament is set for Friday, March 27, at 6:30 p.m., in the Chartiers Valley High School Gym.
“We have the Steelers come and play a game, usually with alumni from Chartiers Valley. Our big prize is two tickets to next year’s Super Bowl; we also have tickets to the U.S. Tennis Open.”
About 1,000 people are expected to attend.
Pancreatic cancer is an often-fatal disorder affecting about 1 percent of the American population. While it is not considered a Jewish genetic disease, some data suggests it is more common among Jews than in the general population — Ashkenazi Jews in particular — according to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Other factors such as diet and smoking also play a role.
The money the Arensons raise has supported clinical trials at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute in Shadyside for more than 140 patients.
But it is the latest group of trials that has shown the most promise for a trial vaccine.
In that group, 42 percent of the participants survived up to five years, said Dr. Olivera Finn, leader of the Cancer Immunology Program at UPCI. Even though that rate represents just five of 12 patients in the trial, it still shows significant improvement over the previous trial group in which the long-term survival rate was 20 percent.
“We only vaccinate people who have had surgery to remove the primary tumor,” Finn said. “The odds are on our side that they will be a little healthier and likelier to respond.”
In the short term, she sees the trial vaccine, which is developed from a strain of cancer molecules and antigen-preventing cells from the patients, as a prevention treatment, not as a cure.
“We (UPCI) are leading the world basically in cancer prevention vaccine,” Finn said.
The Arensons also won the Community Champion Award, which is presented by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Comcast and the Pittsburgh Foundation.
“It brought notice to us, the fact that we are here. And that’s why we do it.”
Arenson’s two sons and a daughter, Milton, and Robbie, of California, and a daughter, Gwen, of Florida, still take part in planning the event; another daughter, Lisa, actively participated until her death two years ago.
How much money this year’s event will bring in is hard to predict.
“The economy isn’t great,” Arenson said, “so whatever we raise is wonderful.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)