Wings of Hope raises more than $100,000 for pancreatic cancer research at CU Cancer Center

Dr. Richard Schulick, director of University of Colorado Cancer Center, Maureen Shul, founder and executive director of Wings of Hope for Pancreatic Cancer Research, and Cristina Cenciarelli, CU’s director of special projects.

Researchers express cautious optimism as survival rate for patients continues to inch higher

By Peter Jones

Despite the continuing effects of COVID-19, a dedicated community of supporters converged Sept. 18 for the sold-out Evening of Hope, generating more than $100,000 to benefit pancreatic cancer research at the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

“Wings of Hope for Pancreatic Cancer Research was determined since the pandemic began not to stop the fundraising,” said Maureen Shul, executive director and founder of the Colorado-based nonprofit organization. “That so many attended our benefit to hear Hazel Miller perform and support funding pancreatic cancer research at CU Cancer Center far surpassed anything I had hoped for.”

An eclectic crowd of CU physicians and researchers, pancreatic cancer patients and survivors, and an array of people with no personal connection to the disease came together at Heritage Eagle Bend Golf Club in Aurora for a cocktail reception, a sit-down dinner, a live auction and a dynamic performance by Hazel Miller and the Collective.

“To hear the top oncologists at Anschutz Medical Campus share the latest developments in pancreatic cancer research and treatments, as well as hear from those on their own journey with this disease, is what made the evening so intensely meaningful,” Shul said.

After a year of lockdowns and bad news, the crowd was ready for something fun, as well as some relatively good news concerning the most challenging of deadly cancers.

Marco Del Chiaro, M.D., the CU Cancer Center’s division chief of surgical oncology, noted that the survival rate for pancreatic cancer patients has gone up a full 1,000% since the 1970s.

“This improvement is related to research,” he said. “We can offer some of those patients much more hope through a multimodal approach of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery.”

Richard Schulick, M.D., the CU Cancer Center’s director, compared today’s overall prognosis to the early days of his career three decades ago when only two out of every 100 pancreatic cancer patients could expect to survive five years after diagnosis.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” Schulick said. “We know what the game plan is. We have to invest more in research.”

That plan has come to life, thanks in part to the activities of Wings of Hope, which has been funding groundbreaking research at the Anschutz Medical Campus since 2013. Most recently, the organization provided the seed money needed to study the effectiveness of immunotherapy to stimulate the body’s ability to fend off aggressive cancer cells.

“So far, pancreatic cancer has been very resistant to that, so we’re hoping this will show a change,” said Wells Messersmith, M.D., the center’s associate director of medical oncology. “The philanthropy raised through Wings of Hope helped us to actually open a clinical trial. There were a lot of start-up costs and things that we just didn’t have.”

Thanks to events like Evening of Hope and the recent Kingsbury Open Golf Tournament, those successes are expected to continue. Shul announced that the volunteer-run Wings of Hope has now raised a total of $1.3 million, all of which directly funds the ongoing research.

Shul paid tribute to former Centennial Mayor Cathy Noon, a pancreatic cancer patient who attended Evening of Hope.

“She has been an inspiration to many of us and shown us what leadership with integrity is all about,” said Shul, who founded Wings of Hope after two members of her family died from pancreatic cancer.

“I want to thank you for giving me the space and support to take the ever-present sadness of losing my mother and my brother to this disease and give meaning and purpose to that grief through this foundation,” Shul said in her closing remarks.

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