The Most Important Day Of The Year: World Pancreatic Cancer Day

I have been given this mountain to show others how it can be moved.

World Pancreatic Cancer Day is November 16th. Eleven years ago, this would not have been noteworthy me to. I barely knew the role of the pancreas and no one in my world had been affected by the disease. About 1.5 years before my first distinct symptom of pancreatic cancer, on a whim, I decided (and did) participate in a 100 mile bike ride in the mountains of Aspen. It is only eleven years later that would I realize the significance of this crazy adventure. In the few months leading up to the bike ride, I had been experiencing a nagging back pain, but I ignored it and continued to live my life to its fullest.

You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.
My dear friend, Tina Staley and I in Los Angeles

My dear friend, Tina Staley and I in Los Angeles

In 2004, Susan B. Komen inaugurated their first 100-mile bike ride for breast cancer research in Independence Pass, Aspen. Believing in the cause, I asked a girlfriend to join me in what I considered to be an exciting, challenging adventure. I did not take into consideration the arduous route involved – 100 miles at 7,908 feet, climbing seven canyons up to 9,730 feet. There would be three official routes comprising of 37, 65 or 100 miles each with drink stands, volunteers and, of course, well wishers along the way. In no way was I prepared for this demanding bike ride, but just knowing I could start with the easiest, shortest route and stop at any time was all I needed to proceed. With six weeks to go before the race, a very dear friend, Tina Staley and I decided to train, get in shape and become familiar with the routes.  We did three training rides, although only one was really preparation as we would cycle, laugh, stop for snacks and enjoy each others company while getting some great exercise.

The Independence Pass ride will take your breath away and is grueling at best. The nation's highest paved pass offers sweeping views of the Rockies and is an arduous climb along a busy highway with many drivers who are unfamiliar with mountain pass driving. Never having tackled anything like this should have been reason enough for me to rule out this ride but determination won over. The Pass route is 60 miles starting at 7,908 feet riding up to a punishing 12,012 feet ending up at the Continental Divide. A panoramic view of the mountains and valley left you with the feeling of floating in the clouds. Local Native Americans with small stands and tables displaying their colorful, homemade crafts covered the mountaintop. As we climbed to the top during a training run, we were met with howling winds, so strong, it felt as if they could whisk us off the mountain. A 30-degree drop in temperature left me thoroughly unprepared. My sleeveless top and thin shell was hardly the protection needed for these dramatic elements. Hail lashed out at our faces, which felt like rubber bands snapping at our bodies. I could only think of returning to a lower elevation where I could recover in the warmth; anything that did not involve a bike! Miserable does not even begin to describe how I felt. Thinking it would be easier riding down the mountain proved to be just the opposite. Numb from the cold, I could hardly grasp the handlebars let alone squeeze the brakes. Riding downhill in pouring rain with a steady stream of traffic alongside on a narrow, winding road was terrifying. The thought that my bike would slide underneath me, propel my body under a fast moving car and transform me into a pancake left me in a state of panic for the next two hours. The iconic villain of the Wicked Witch of the West came to mind! At the bottom of the hill, six hours later, I could barely whisper a goodbye to Tina. My body shook uncontrollably; I tried to dismiss the searing pain that consumed every part of my body. My home was a short four miles away, but even that seemed overwhelming. The only incentive was the vision of a steaming, hot bath.

With the race a few short weeks away, more training would have been the better tactic but the horrific experience going up the Pass was still fresh in my mind. An additional forty miles in the actual race and climbing more canyons would be demanding, but I ignored this and considered myself ready for the adventure. A week before the race an early morning phone call gave us the sad news that Paul’s mother had passed away. We would be attending her memorial the day of the race.

Knowing I would not be able to ride in the race, I researched the bike route on the internet. I was fairly confident that I could tackle this on my own without the vendors, water stations or crowds to cheer me on. Paul was an extremely experienced cyclist having participated in numerous trips over many years, riding 100 miles a day, seven days straight. I awoke early one morning expressing my desire to ride the race route today, and that he needed to go with me. He said I was crazy, I had not trained, I was not in shape, that I would hurt myself and essentially I was out of my mind. All true but I had heard this before, ignored him, packed my snacks, lunch, bike supplies and proceeded to tell him how much fun we were going to have on this adventure!


The first few canyons were without any mishaps or fanfare. Early morning up the mountains were chilly with no sight of any activity other than wildlife taking advantage of the beautiful terrain. A few friends met us along the way, which really fueled my fire and energized me. Later in the day, stopping by a biker hangout Woody Creek Tavern should have put me in a party mood. A high energy crowd, colorful bike jerseys, laughter and tales of strenuous rides made for a festive atmosphere. That is the complete opposite of how I felt. By now, I was in agony. There was absolutely no comfort to be had for my back, bottom, neck or wrists. I really questioned what I was thinking – this was going to be fun?! One last climb remained – Cardiac Hill. There is a reason for the name, it is a killer! Our home was at the end of this very long stretch; I could not imagine this being that challenging. Wrong again! My head said this but not my body – everything was a struggle – even breathing! I could call someone to pick me up but I would not allow that to happen, I had to finish. I am not a fast biker! Exhausted, breathless and resembling a limp noodle, disembarking off my bike ten long, grueling hours later, confirmed this! However I was quite proud of myself that I had just ridden 100 miles (at altitude!) and one hour later, I was enjoying a glass of wine and a hearty dinner at our favorite restaurant. I accomplished this demanding physical effort and most importantly, it was over!

I share this story of my crazy adventure because I believe the drive, grit, determination, and perseverance that allowed me to tackle something I was completely unprepared for, is what has allowed me eleven years later, to celebrate World Pancreatic Cancer Day. I was not going to let this disease get the best of me and I empowered myself with the tools and resources from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. I reflect back on my complaints to Tina about my back pain.   She encouraged me on several occasions to see a doctor but I felt fine otherwise, so ignored this symptom. Do not let this happen to you.



Each November, during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, we come together on World Pancreatic Cancer Day, November 16th, to unite the globe in bringing attention to pancreatic cancer and highlight the need for greater awareness, funding, and research. It is critical that you educate yourself – learn the symptoms and risk factors of this disease where an estimated 71% will die within the first year of diagnosis.

We desperately need funding for medical research. Currently, there are no screening tests or early detection tools. And early detection is the only way we are going to change the landscape for patients and survivors. The status quo is not acceptable. We need better progress. And better progress starts with earlier detection.

Many of the pancreatic cancer symptoms can be vague and are similar to less serious conditions. Here is a list:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Mid-back pain
  • Indigestion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Changes in stool
  • New-onset diabetes
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Jaundice

Please review the following pancreatic cancer risk factors:

  • Family history of pancreatic cancer
  • Pancreatitis
  • Diabetes
  • Age
  • Overweight
  • Smoking

All of the symptoms and risk factors can have multiple other causes and the symptoms and may well be a sign of something else. BUT, listen to your body; don’t ignore the signs. If you have been regularly experiencing one or more the symptoms that are persistent, worsening and not normal for you, do not ignore them. See your healthcare provider as soon as you can.

I am thankful for my struggle because without it, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon my strength.
— Alexandra Elle