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Making the Climb for Pancreatic Cancer

June 28, 2024

Hayley McGowan’s mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on July 1, 2023. By the month’s end, she lost her mom but found a community determined to make a difference.

“It was like a warm hug,” Hayley says of being surrounded by more than 600 like-minded cyclists in last year’s Capilano Volkswagen Cypress Challenge presented by Glotman Simpson Cycling.

Her mom, Valerie, had passed away just three days prior and though deep in grief, Hayley says, there was never any doubt that she would make the 12 km climb to help raise funds for pancreatic cancer research.

“I had to do it to honour her, and to honour the people that gave,” says Hayley, as donor generosity kept them both going during her mom’s cancer journey.

“My mom couldn’t believe these people she didn’t know were supporting her. She felt loved and seen. It really kept her spirits up. And gave us both a lot of positivity through those 27 days from her diagnosis until her death.”

A Pilates instructor, Hayley initially sent an email alerting her network to her mom’s diagnosis and her participation in the Cypress Challenge with a fundraising goal of $1,000.

One of my clients immediately called and chastised me to set the bar higher, she says. “He said, Hayley, rewrite that email and set your goal to $10,000 — and if you don’t make it, I will make it for you. And then his wife came on the phone and she was crying and they were just so supportive.”

The outpouring of generosity was overwhelming, even more so after Valerie passed. An avid cyclist, with a couple Ironmans under her belt, the ride up Cypress was more a mental than a physical challenge for Hayley. But her aunts and cousins came out, with one cousin also cycling, and provided moral support. As did the other riders.

“It helped me grieve to be around other people who had also struggled, but also other people who hadn’t been personally affected by pancreatic cancer yet felt it was important to improve outcomes.” 

Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed in late stage when the disease has spread. As a result, it has one of the lowest survival rates for cancer. Life expectancy for 75% of patients is only one year past diagnosis.

Funds raised through the Cypress Challenge support the world-leading research at Pancreas Centre BC (PCBC). Co-directed by BC Cancer’s Dr. Daniel Renouf, it was created in 2012 to develop more personalized treatment options and advance early detection including a study aiming to improve screening for people at high hereditary risk for pancreatic cancer.

“The money we’re raising will help people like me get genetic testing.” And if Hayley’s test shows an increased risk, she says, “I will have a fighting chance where my mom never had one.”

Another PCBC initiative crucial to pancreatic cancer patient support is the Rapid Access Clinic, which has streamlined patient care and significantly reduced the time between diagnosis and treatment to minimize stress and improve outcomes in a disease where time is of essence.

In 16 years, the small but mighty Cypress Challenge community has raised more than $4.5 million to support PCBC and BC Cancer’s pancreatic cancer research.

Breakthroughs include the discovery that the disease is actually many different subtypes — which is leading to more effective treatments – and 10 different diagnostic tools, where a decade ago there was just one standard test. Any progress in this evasive cancer is welcome news to families facing the disease, which is why Hayley has signed up for the Cypress Challenge again this year.

“I know we couldn’t have kept my mom alive another 10 years, but maybe we could have given her another six months,” says Hayley. “Two of her grandchildren, including my daughter, were very young and her biggest fear, and what she was most sad about, was that they wouldn’t remember her. When you’re talking two and a half to three years old, that’s a lot of added time to remember your grandma.”

Help BC Cancer transform pancreatic cancer care across the province. Sign up for the Cypress Challenge on July 28, 2024.