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Northland runners to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer during Grandma’s Marathon weekend

Siblings Carey Hogenson (from left), Jeff Bright and Jenny Falk, all of Two Harbors, have lost close relatives to pancreatic cancer. Jenny started “Go Big or Go Home,” a Northland-based team of runners affiliated with Team Hope, a national running program connected to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Jeff Bright and his sister, Jenny Falk, are running the half marathon Saturday while Carey Hogenson is running the Irvin 5K on Friday night. (Clint Austin / / 2
Carey Hogenson (from left), Jeff Bright and Jenny Falk, all of Two Harbors, wear bracelets supporting pancreatic cancer research. (Clint Austin / / 2

Hard as it is to believe now, there was a time when Jenny Falk knew little about pancreatic cancer.

Despite its brutality and proliferation — pancreatic cancer was the fourth-leading cause of cancer death in the United States in 2013 — Falk hardly had considered the indiscriminate disease.

“I knew nothing about it until I started experiencing it,” she said recently.

Unfortunately for the 32-year-old Two Harbors resident, that began in March 2005. It was then that Steve Ruberg, the stepfather of Falk’s husband, Eric Falk, started having stomach pains. Pancreatic cancer was the diagnosis. Ruberg died four months later.

More than four years passed before Falk had to confront the disease again. Her aunt, Carole Hahn, became ill in December 2009, shortly before Christmas. When doctors discovered a mass on her pancreas, Falk “knew it was cancer.” Hahn died April 11, 2010. She was buried April 15, the same day Falk’s oldest daughter, Josie, turned 3.

That summer, Falk’s mother, Bev Bright, started experiencing flu-like symptoms. Bright stubbornly ignored them for two weeks before seeing her doctor. A battery of tests ensued. On Aug. 3, Bright was told she had a cancerous mass on her pancreas. Because it was detected early enough, Bright was able to have a “Whipple” procedure to remove the mass. She endured months of chemotherapy and radiation and appeared to be winning the battle. But in September 2011, a CT scan revealed a thickening by Bright’s pancreas. The cancer had returned.

She “passed away the night before Easter Sunday on my sister’s birthday, April 7, 2012,” said Falk, who was referring to one of her three siblings, Carey Hogenson. Bright was laid to rest on the two-year anniversary of her sister — Hahn — dying.

Falk, whose great-grandmother also died from pancreatic cancer, now knows way more than she’d like about the deadly disease. Outspoken and tireless in her pursuit to raise awareness, she started “Go Big or Go Home,” a Northland-based team of runners affiliated with Team Hope, a national running program connected to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The running crests at Grandma’s Marathon.

“Go big or go home” a tribute to Bright

Falk’s team will have 57 runners participating in either Friday’s William A. Irvin 5K or Saturday’s Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon.

The “Go Big or Go Home” moniker is a tribute to Bright, who was 58 when she died.

“If she was making dinner for six, there was enough food on the table for 16,” said her son, Jeff Bright.

Jeff Bright, like his sister Jenny, is running the half marathon Saturday. Hogenson is running the 5K, while another brother, Chris Bright, remains a holdout.

“Go Big or Go Home” had raised $14,492 for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network as of Wednesday.

Before she died, Bev Bright impressed upon Falk the need to get active in the fight against pancreatic cancer. Thus the impetus for joining Team Hope and running Grandma’s.

It’s a way, Falk said, to commemorate family members who succumbed.

“That was what was important to her, that we keep raising awareness, keep raising money for research and patient support,” said Falk, a mother of three. “I think she was really scared that, because of the family history, one of us could get this.”

Falk and her brother have had differing degrees of success training this spring. Falk was slowed by a stress fracture in her foot and consequently is behind last year’s schedule, when she ran her first half. Bright’s running, meanwhile, has gone smoothly as the Two Harbors resident graduates from the 5K to his first 13.1-mile distance.

Both say it’s an honor to run for a cause that has had such a profound impact on their lives.

“You’re running for multiple reasons, but the main one is just in memory of the ones lost,” said Bright, 36. “It’s kind of a sense of what they went through, the fight they put up for so long. Thirteen miles doesn’t seem very far compared to what they had to go through.”

It’s that approach that prompts Falk to say: “I’ll walk or crawl or whatever I have to do to finish.”

Building a bond with Grandma’s

Team Hope’s relationship with Grandma’s Marathon started in 2011 at the behest of then-executive director Scott Keenan. At the upcoming race weekend, the group will have its largest contingent of runners — at least 214 — in the history of the program at any one event, according to Nancy Marian of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

The partnership has flourished, in part, because pancreatic cancer is a disease the Grandma’s staff is painfully familiar with. Kevin Peterson and Don Fennessy, former board members and Grandma’s Marathon titans, died from pancreatic cancer — Peterson in 2013 and Fennessy in 2011.

“Don and Kevin were very special to Scott,” said Jon Carlson, Keenan’s replacement as executive director.

When Keenan retired last summer, he didn’t want a lot of fanfare. Instead, there was a $5,000 donation made in his name to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

“Scott didn’t really want any type of going-away deal,” Carlson said. “He would rather have a donation made on his behalf from the marathon to (fight) pancreatic cancer.”

This year marked the first Saint Fennessy 4K, a fun run in March held in honor of Fennessy. And the Park Point Beach Run 5K debuted in 2013, with all proceeds benefiting the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Both races highlight Grandma’s devotion to fighting the disease, which continues to hit close to home.

Catherine Coleman, a University of Minnesota Duluth student and a Grandma’s intern from Wayzata, Minn., lost her mother, Brenda Coleman, to pancreatic cancer May 6. Brenda Coleman battled the disease an astounding 13 years. She was 57. Catherine Coleman ran the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon last year for “Team Brenda,” which featured more than 30 friends and family members.

Falk is thankful for the support system she’s found with Team Hope, and the camaraderie that pervades Grandma’s weekend.

“I can’t even describe it,” she said.

Not many people fully understand the ravages of pancreatic cancer quite like Falk. Consequently, she has become a resource for others similarly affected. That included Sarah Godfrey, Kevin Peterson’s daughter, who leaned on Falk when her dad was sick.

“I was constantly texting her about how horrible it was, and she could totally relate,” said Godfrey, 27.

After Peterson was diagnosed in July 2011, Godfrey “told him his goal was to live until (the following) June to see me finish my first full marathon,” which she did as part of Team Hope.

Godfrey inherited her father’s dedication to Grandma’s. Because she’s more than five months pregnant, Godfrey will scale back to just the 5K this year. Godfrey also will hand out water at Mile 25 during the marathon.

And she will continue to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer “because once you have it, your chances are not good.”