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Pancreatic Cancer: Debbie Ryan and Why You Should Care

Surviving pancreatic cancer is just one of Debbie Ryan's many accomplishments.

It’s not every day you get to meet a living legend.

On the eve of November, National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, that’s what I got to do — talk to one of the very, very few people alive who has survived pancreatic cancer. She also happens to be Debbie Ryan, one of the most famous names in women’s basketball, who coached the UVA team for 34 years, received numerous awards and accolades, and has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the UVA Cancer Center.

Reviewing all of Ryan’s accomplishments prior to our interview made my head dizzy. But meeting her in person was what made me feel I was truly in the presence of greatness.

She told her story with an unpretentious passion that gave me goosebumps. As she said at one point, “With me, what you see is what you get.” Dressed in her blue UVA basketball jacket – she just returned from coaching the women’s Pan American team in Mexico – this accomplished coach sat down and got right to it: talking about her own relationship to cancer, going through treatment with her close friend Emily Couric and why she’s so passionate about raising pancreatic cancer awareness. 

The Cancer With a Sweet Tooth?

“With pancreatic cancer, everybody dies,” says Ryan. “So now you have no one to carry the flag – and the fewer the people you have helping it, the fewer dollars you have going towards it. Only 2 percent of the National Cancer Institute’s funds go to pancreatic cancer, yet it’s the fourth leading killer and rising.”

And the reason it’s rising? “Pancreatic cancer has a sweet tooth,” Ryan says, emphatically. She points to the rise in obesity, because “every time the pancreas deals with sugar, it pulses – you’re killing your organ, sending insulin into your digestive system.”

According to the National Cancer Institute, risk factors can also include smoking, diabetes and genetics, which Ryan believes played a role in her own situation. “We thought I was an anomaly in my family, until my uncle died of it and we realized my great grandmother — who had jaundice — probably died of it.” Family medical histories can be guesswork, of course, if they took place before medical imaging was around to diagnose a cause like pancreatic cancer.

A Cancer Disguised

Even with modern imaging technology, diagnosing pancreatic cancer continues to pose a major challenge. Often, people don’t experience any symptoms, and when they do, the symptoms look like those of other illnesses.

This is what happened to Ryan. “I started with a stomach problem they thought they could treat with Prilosec or Pepsid. It went away and came back again.” Imaging tests didn’t show anything out of the normal at first. And then they found it: a tumor in the duct. “I already knew my chances. I had done the research. Everyone dies.”

A Friendship That Builds

Three weeks before, Virginia state senator Emily Couric was also diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The two went into treatment together, Ryan explains; and:

“We became very good friends during the process. We were like sisters going through this thing together. We sat in chemo sometimes writing notes to Leonard Sandridge about how we wanted the cancer center to be, even the robes and everything, right to the nitty gritty. We talked about light, colors, gardens, what we needed right then and what we wanted in the future. Emily wanted a five-star hotel next door, and I wanted a whole floor to be an exercise facility. We wanted it to not just be about the patient, but the patients’ family had to be helped as well. We wanted it to be a place to heal that was full of hope.”

The hours spent designing ideas to improve their experience helped deflect the pain and fear of cancer treatment. Ryan even found it fun: “We didn’t worry about the cancer; we were building a building.”

Clearly, it was profoundly personal when last year, their vision of a new cancer facility became a reality – with Emily’s name on it.

The Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center: A Vision Made Real

Does Ryan like the new cancer center?

“I absolutely love it. People walk in there and say their experience there is memorable. From the minute you walk in to the minute you leave, you feel like you are a special patient.” And this is just what they had envisioned. “Not just the state senator or the women’s basketball coach – we wanted everyone to feel special: Doctors putting their arms around them and making patients feel special.”

In the end, Ryan’s cancer was operable. Couric’s was not.

“She was going through so much and it was so hard. She lost her hair and that was a horrible thing for her. She persevered nevertheless.” Ultimately, Couric inspired Ryan to be “an out person about pancreatic cancer. She said, ‘You owe to all those people who will come after us. It may kill your recruiting -‘ and it did- ‘but people are counting on you to set an example.’”

An Outside Force

Couric’s influence continues. Now — with Couric gone, the cancer center built, and having retired from coaching at UVA  — Ryan focuses on raising awareness and getting funding for a new pancreatic cancer research program.

“It’s so great that at UVA we’re doing something significant. I’m really proud of it.” The program will continue groundbreaking work on an early detection test, which could lead to a cure.

Ryan explains, “We thought it was a fast-moving disease; the truth is, there’s a long incubation time when you actually have the cells in your system but they haven’t created a tumor. Once it makes a tumor, then it goes all over the place. If you can identify the cells before they form a tumor, you at least have a chance to treat the disease early.”

Which is why Ryan is working with the UVA Development Office. “I’m an outside force helping them. In basketball recruiting it’s all about relationships, and it’s the same thing here. The better you connect with people, the more likely they are to join in your cause.”

Her face shines when she talks about the UVA doctors and researchers. “We’ve gone from nowhere to somewhere in a couple of years. The best and the brightest we have are on this.”

“I Kept on Playing”

Only 4 percent of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live longer than five years. Hitting the 10-year mark, it’s amazing that Ryan is alive. I point this out, and she shrugs. “I don’t know why. The doctors don’t know why I’m still walking around.” Reflecting further, Ryan’s voice gets quieter. “Fear and cancer go hand in hand. That’s why children overcome cancer easier than adults. They don’t fear anything. They don’t know. They just keep on playing. That’s kind of what I did. I kept on playing.”

But don’t congratulate Ryan on beating cancer. “I didn’t beat anything. No one can beat cancer. It’s too broad, too elusive, too formidable a foe. When I got it, I decided it would be like fighting Al-Qaeda by myself, so I said OK, if you’re going to be here, let me make you warm; what do you want for dinner. I said I’m not fighting. I can’t beat you. The cancer didn’t like that and it went away.”

We are quiet for a moment. It turns out we’ve both been thinking of the recent death of Steve Jobs. “We just lost one of our brightest minds ever. One of his endearing quotes was ‘stay focused and be foolish’ — I love it and that’s me! He had all the resources, but we lost him,” Ryan says. “How many more incredible minds and people are we going to lose to pancreatic cancer before we do something significant about it?”

Certainly, Ryan is doing her part. What are you going to do?

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