It’s been 22 years since Julie Fleshman’s father passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 52. Back then, she knew very little about the disease. Fast-forward to 2021, and she’s been able to harness her initial feelings and change the lives of so many as the president and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN).
When Julie attempted to learn more about pancreatic cancer, she came across the organization and wanted to become a volunteer. At that time PanCAN was strictly volunteer-based. However, Julie changed that. She was hired as the first full-time employee and then as the executive director in April 2020.
“My dad was such an important person in my life. I wanted to make him proud,” says Julie. “I wish he was still alive, but I can’t imagine my life without PanCAN. In some weird way he gave me a gift. I know he’d be very proud. I hopefully can carry on his legacy.”
One of the things that keeps Julie dedicated to the cause is the memory of what it was like when her father was diagnosed and the shortage of resources available to her family. Because of that, she and a staff of 150 people are doing everything they can to make resources available to families. The nonprofit’s website gives information about pancreatic cancer, treatment information and what it’s like to live with the disease.
The most important program the organization created is patient services, which answers questions, offers caring support and helps guide those in need on the next steps to take. PanCAN speaks to more pancreatic cancer patients and caregivers than any other organization in the world.
All of these resources have become possible due to the overwhelming increase in the amount of money donated to PanCAN. Under Julie’s leadership, PanCAN went from having revenue of $228,000 to a budget of more than $40 million.
In November, which is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, PanCAN partnered with actress and writer Mindy Kaling on a national awareness campaign. It was personal for Mindy, who lost her mother to the disease in 2012. The campaign resulted in record-breaking fundraising numbers despite the pandemic.
“From day one we’ve had a plan. Every year we do. When you do that and have strong programs and services, you can go and sell that to donors and supporters,” says Julie. “We are lucky to have a disease where people are passionate and want to help in whatever way possible.”
Julie continues to keep PanCAN front and center in the fight against pancreatic cancer. She goes to Washington, D.C. to speak to members of Congress on an annual basis and has advocated successfully to increase federal research dollars. In December Congress passed a budget that included $15 million for the Department of Defense’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Program. When the program was created in 2019, $6 million had been allotted.
“Members of Congress have so many issues. You go in as an expert ready to educate. It’s when we tell them stories about people like my father or others lucky enough to have survived that it resonates with them. They know our group now because we are relentless,” says Julie.
Moving forward, PanCAN has a handful of ambitious goals. By 2030 PanCAN wants the five-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer to increase from 10% to 20%. The organization also wants to raise $80 million annually. The last major goal is to raise awareness about PanCAN from 14% to 30%.
“When we hear amazing stories about those who are fighting or who have fought pancreatic cancer, it reenergizes us and inspires me and the staff to remember why we do this and why it is so important to reach our goals,” says Julie.