By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — What if diabetes were an early warning sign of pancreatic cancer?
That’s the question Dallas resident Jon Aronson and his brother Tom are striving to have answered by a medical research team.
The siblings have commissioned ground breaking research in memory of their father — who unexpectedly died of the disease nine years ago. The Aronson brothers are in the process of raising $200,000 to pay for this research grant.
Robert Aronson was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer March 25, 2006. Without any real form of early detection, it was essentially a death sentence. He died Nov. 28, 2006.
Jon Aronson, a member of Congregation Shearith Israel, said November transformed into a bittersweet month of regret for him and his brother after their father passed away.
“It’s hard to explain how awesome my dad was,” said Jon Aronson, 33. “He worked hard, spending his life bring to help others. He reached out to people whenever they needed anything.”
Until he died, Robert Aronson, 55, was a general contractor from Westlake Village, California. He was heavily involved in youth sports and very active in his community. In the early 2000s, he even established a scholarship for students at Agoura High School in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles.
Jon Aronson, a senior finance manager for Frito-Lay in Dallas, and his brother Tom, 36, a vice president of digital marketing for Disney Parks in Southern California, continue to wrestle with their father’s passing.
“It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized we were truly best friends,” Tom Aronson wrote in an email. “My dad confided and trusted in me, and I in him. Today when I’m faced with a life issue — big or small — I think about what his advice would be, and smile.”
When asking questions of their father’s doctors, the brothers recalled Robert Aronson had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about a year before his death. The problem is, there was no history of diabetes in the Aronson family.
“That information literally came out of nowhere,” Jon Aronson explained.
After asking around, the brothers came to the conclusion their father’s diabetes was brought on by cancer cells.
“We didn’t know about this beforehand, but the doctors told us after the fact that they saw it as a warning sign of the cancer,” Jon Aronson said.
But if diabetes was seen as a possible warning sign, the brothers asked, why wasn’t their father screened for cancer early enough to keep the disease from killing him?
The answer from the physicians shocked them: Such a procedure was too costly, they were told.
Too high a cost means no one can afford to be screened.
“It was like a light bulb went off,” Jon Aronson said. “This was the same exact research that — well, maybe it wouldn’t have saved his life, but it could have prolonged it for sure.”
The brothers now have high hopes that when this research is completed, people will ultimately be able to walk into any drugstore, give a blood sample, take a $5 test screening them for pancreatic cancer and be able to find out relatively quickly if they merit further screening.
“It opens the doors to treatments my dad never had,” Jon Aronson said. “It involves treatments that aren’t basically a death sentence.”
Back when they were searching for more immediate answers, the Aronsons learned of a special study led by Dr. Anirban Maitra at the Houston MD Anderson Cancer Center. It was designed to identify biomarkers in diabetic patients that indicate the need to be screened for pancreatic cancer.
In other words, it was an attempt to discover if late-onset diabetes can be considered a symptom of pancreatic cancer — like the Aronson brothers believe their father’s was.
The brothers contacted Pamela Acosta Marquardt, founder of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and asked if they could donate directly to this research. They were told, “Yes.”
However, Pamela Acosta Marquardt did them one better.
“She told us, ‘If you like, if you fund the entirety of the $200,000, you can name the grant,” Jon Aronson said. “I had no idea how large the grant was. She told me ‘$200,000’ and I called my brother about it and he said immediately, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”
The brothers signed papers guaranteeing funding for the grant and named it the “Robert Aronson Innovation Grant.”
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network fronted the money and forwarded it to the research staff with the understanding that the brothers were legally responsible for paying it back within two years.
“We’re on the hook for the entire $200,000 but we’re comfortable with that,” Jon Aronson said. “We’ve set up a fundraising page and sent emails out. We’ve done some Facebook ads. So we’re going to raise that money.”
That was last year. Nearly $150,000 was collected then. And now, a year later, the second wave of fundraising begins. The progress of both research and fundraising is constantly posted and monitored on Facebook and Twitter.
Last week, brothers had raised $141,096 from 173 donors toward the grant.
Stage IV pancreatic cancer can be any size, according to www.cancer.gov.
Pancreatic cancer is so deadly because early detection is so difficult, the brothers said they understand based on conversations with physicians. This research has the potential to positively impact a huge percentage of all newly diagnosed pancreatic cancer patients — a lasting and impactful difference in how pancreatic cancer is detected and treated, they said.
Jon Aronson believes he and his brother are on the right path with this research. He met with project administrators Dr. Anirban Maitra and his team in Houston in July. He remains convinced their work will do humanity a lot of good.
“This is one of the most deadly cancers there is,” Jon Aronson said. “Every year 49,000 people get diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the majority of these are Stage IV survival rates, six months maybe. This research can potentially impact as many as 25,000 people a year who will know about it before its too late.”
According what the brothers have learned from Dr. Maitra and cancer websites, “two-thirds of pancreatic cancer patients are diagnosed with new-onset diabetes sometime in the 36 months before they are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While there is still no cure, early detection can make a huge difference.’’
Pamela Acosta Marquardt applauded the initiative of the Aronson brothers.
“We are grateful for the continued dedication and support of Tom and Jon Aronson, in loving memory of their father Robert,” Pamela Acosta Marquardt said in an email. “It’s individuals and families like the Aronsons that will change the face of pancreatic cancer, improve patient outcomes and help our organization meet its goal to double survival by 2020.”
Jon and Tom’s mother, Allison, still lives in Newbury Park, California with daughter Molly, who is now 24.
Robert and Allison Aronson divorced when the brothers were still teenagers — although Robert Aronson stayed close to his children through his death.
Allison Aronson said her ex-husband’s passing was hard on the brothers.
“Their dad loved them so much and when he died it was such a shock,” she said during a brief telephone interview. “He was a strong, healthy man without even a filling in his mouth and then, boom! He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away.”
Allison Aronson said her sons have demonstrated a ferocious amount of will and determination in bringing this research into fruition.
“They are remarkable,” she said. “They’ve conquered every quest they’ve come across and they are wonderful boys. I don’t know what else I can say. I really can’t believe they’ve already raised so much money. I am so proud of them.”
Offline: Pancreatic Cancer Action Network with “2014 Robert Aronson Innovation Grant” in the note field
care of Tom Aronson, P.O. Box 1854, Santa Monica, CA 90406.