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A Patient, Fundraiser & An Inspiration of Hope

Written By Julia Brabant
October 2019

Diagnosed: November, 2002
Status: No Sign of Active Cancer

Based on statistics alone, Howard Young probably shouldn’t be here.
But he’s never been the type to let numbers or data determine his fate. Now, nearly 18 years after receiving his initial pancreatic cancer diagnosis, the Atlanta, Georgia-based beer distributor has helped countless others “ignore the numbers” while replacing the sobering statistics so often heard by pancreatic cancer patients with some life-changing figures of his own.

He didn’t set out to be a trailblazer for the pancreatic cancer community – in fact, back before that fateful day in November, 2002, the biggest hurdle the then-42-year-old saw in his path was hunting down a Christmas present that would please his wife, Becky. After suffering through a month’s worth of stomach pains, though, he trusted his gut, so to speak, and soon after, he heard the words that would ultimately set the path for the next nearly two decades: he not only had cancer, but he had one of the harshest, most unforgiving forms of it out there: pancreatic cancer.

Now, typically, hearing news like this takes some time to digest, but time is not something many have much of in the weeks and months following a cancer diagnosis. So, because Howard was one of the “lucky ones,” or the 20% or so who receive the pancreatic cancer diagnosis early enough to have surgical intervention as an option, he knew what his future held, and he knew there would be hard days ahead. What he didn’t realize at the time, though, was just how much he’d learn along the way about love, perseverance and the strength of the human spirit.

See, that surgery was not without complications, and the subsequent struggles were some of the worst he’d ever faced. He dropped 35 pounds from his long, lean 6’6” frame, and he spent as many as eight hours a day receiving intravenous drugs so powerful he could feel them burning through his veins. He underwent months and months of chemotherapy and 29 radiation treatments, and when his doctor concluded he’d done all that he could do, Howard simply refused to accept his fate. He was a father of three daughters, after all, and he’d yet to see them graduate high school, marry or have children. He didn’t have any intention of missing out on these milestones.

So, he decided to seek a second opinion from Dr. Daniel Von Hoff of the Translational Genomics Research Institute, setting the wheels in motion for a relationship that would help change the face of the modern pancreatic cancer community. One of the globe’s most prolific pancreatic cancer researchers, Dr. Von Hoff’s studies and clinical trials have led to some of the most significant medical advances ever made against the devastating disease. And while his scientific contributions and breakthroughs have saved and extended countless lives, it was his approach to working with pancreatic cancer patients that set him even further apart from the pack.

“Here’s someone so brilliant that he’s working hand-in-hand with geneticists, but he’s also able to break down incredibly complex medical terminology into terms any patient can understand,” Howard said, of Dr. Von Hoff’s bedside manner. “Talking with him opened up a whole new world of hope for me, and not false hope, either – real, true hope, translated in plain language.”

Now, almost 17 years later, and with the help of Dr. Von Hoff, he’s walked all three daughters down the aisle, gained three new granddaughters and celebrated their birthdays, first steps and similar milestones. He also continues to draw upon the knowledge and hope he gained working with Dr. Von Hoff to encourage countless other pancreatic cancer patients to join clinical trials and otherwise work toward a cure.

He also hit the pavement quite literally for the cause, raising $100,000 for the TGen Foundation by participating in Georgia’s 10K Peachtree Road Race just a year after he could barely climb stairs. He also co-launched Howard Young’s Atlanta Golf Classic with John Morley and the Seena Magowitz Foundation to fund pancreatic cancer research, which is now in its tenth year and has raised, to date, more than $1 million. A board member for TGen, the chair of its National Pancreatic Cancer Committee, a patient advocate for Stand Up to Cancer and an active member of many local pancreatic cancer efforts, he’s a tireless champion for the cause. And while finding a cure is his primary focus, he also looks to help those grappling with their own diagnoses learn to live life to the fullest and make the most of the time available to them.

“People share some amazing things with you when they’re telling you goodbye,” he notes, adding that everyone from his business colleagues to his barber made efforts to connect with him after learning of his diagnosis. “It’s a shame people don’t always tell you, ‘I love you,’ ‘I think the world of you,’ in the absence of these circumstances,” Howard said. “If it weren’t for the chemotherapy and radiation, I’d recommend everyone go through it, because it tells you so much about what you mean to the people around you.”

Nowadays, an estimated 44,000 Americans succumb to pancreatic cancer every year, and while the number of deaths linked to other common forms of cancer has remained relatively consistent, the number of pancreatic cancer deaths in the United States continues to rise. More than 60% of those diagnosed with the disease die within one year of their diagnoses, while fewer than 10% of those afflicted live five years past their diagnosis dates.

While some members of the pancreatic cancer community commonly cite these statistics, they’re something Howard chooses to ignore. “Every individual is a statistic of one, and every individual has a fighting chance,” he recalls his doctor telling him early on. It’s a sentiment he’s held dear not only though his own battle, but in his efforts to help others fight theirs.

So, rather than dwell on the numbers, he’s decided to work toward some new ones of his own. To date, he has helped raise well over $3 million for pancreatic cancer research. He’s also touched countless lives not only through fundraising, but through refusing to let patients facing similar hardships give up or lose hope when the going gets tough. He’s also cemented himself a symbol of hope for others struggling to come to terms with their own diagnoses, offering them the same strength and support other showed him, which he credits, alongside Dr. Von Hoff’s clinical trials, with helping save his own life.

Rather than see a cure as something that might happen sometime in the distant future, Howard explained, Dr. Von Hoff focuses on finding one today. And he’s not relying on the information in dusty books or referencing studies performed long ago in doing so, either – he’s making medical advancements literally every day in the fight against pancreatic cancer, utilizing a comprehensive approach in doing so that attacks the disease from all angles.

“So often, this disease is viewed as a death sentence, but what Dr. Von Hoff gives patients is confidence that’s grounded in real-life science,” Howard said. “I wholeheartedly believe he is going to cure pancreatic cancer one day, and that he’ll quite possibly receive the Nobel Prize in the process.”

“I thank my Lord God, my wife Becky, family, and friends for their loving support” said Howard. “I felt I was never fighting this battle against cancer alone.”

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2016 John S. McCain Leadership Award

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