Strings of purple lights decorating the storefronts or decks of downtown St. John’s businesses in November are part of a campaign to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer.
It’s the local touch on an international campaign to raise awareness of the disease — the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in Canada.
Mike Wahl heads up the Purple Lights for John campaign in St. John’s. His family started purple Lights for John —part of the Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation — after his father John Wahl died from the disease about five years ago.
“We did it just for my dad to begin with and it became Purple Lights for John. Ironically now ‘John’ has sort of become a John Doe, everybody knows a John, so John is somebody’s dad, husband, somebody’s mother,” Mike Wahl said.
“That’s the name that sort of came to it, but it’s shedding light on this underfunded, under aware and under advocated disease.”
The Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation, according to its website, is focused on fighting pancreatic cancer through raising funds for research, awareness, education and advocacy. Its goals are to improve overall patient survival rates and to create a brighter future for those affected by pancreatic cancer.
Since its inception in 2006, it has invested nearly $4 million in research at cancer centres across Canada — funding scientific projects in early detection, treatment and improving patient outcomes.
What is alarming about the disease and research into it is that pancreatic survival rates have not improved in 40 years. After diagnosis, there is a 74 per cent death rate in the first year, and a 93 per cent death rate within five years.
On Tuesday, St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen signed a proclamation declaring November as Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month in the city. And Thursday it was World Pancreatic Cancer Day.
Wahl said that using the purple lights is one way of raising awareness that he and others in his group hope will lead to more funding going into pancreatic cancer research which will eventually lead to a cure.
“I didn’t know anything about it until my dad was diagnosed,” Wahl said. “There was not a lot of awareness out there. Most people who have it don’t make it so there’s few left to advocate it. It happens so rapidly and people pass away so quickly that the families are kind of left to put the pieces together so they don’t really have the voice to reach out.
“This is an international campaign that (in other jurisdictions) lights up iconic buildings, but we decided to go a bit more grassroots. My mom and my sister are in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and what we’ve done is we’ve got people in the communities and businesses to light their storefronts or their front decks, to create some awareness. Everybody on Water Street in St. John’s has the lights and the goal is that — with the media exposure — people will drive down and know what the lights are for now. When they go to give to cancer research in the future maybe they’ll advocate that some of that go toward pancreatic cancer.”
According to the Pancreatic Cancer Canada Foundation, 5,500 Canadians will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017 — 50 per cent of which will die within four months.
Wahl said that is why it is so important to raise awareness and to act to improve survival rates and eventually beat the disease. He said the Purple Lights for John campaign is growing.
“Basically the goal is that, No. 1, it will raise awareness in the community for people to recognize signs and symptoms, because the only way to really survive it is to get early diagnosis,” Wahl said.
“And No. 2, even if the City of St. John’s lights up and it’s the only city in Canada that has its main street lit purple for November that might get some exposure, whether it be local or national. And maybe somebody large will be able to fund some big research project that will lead to a cure. Awareness leads to research that leads to a cure.”