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“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life:” Larry Simons’ Story
Written By: Julia Brabant
Date of Diagnosis: July 2020
Passed Away: August 2021
Larry Simons had long dreamed of selling his home in the Philadelphia suburbs and living out his retirement in a new one on the New Jersey coast, but when that dream finally came true in July 2020, it was bittersweet. Larry had been trying to get answers about a series of ongoing health issues he’d been experiencing since March of that year, and the day doctors delivered the news that he had pancreatic cancer was the same day he closed on that dream home.
“He was a man who never complained a day in his life,” said his daughter, Brooke, who urged Larry to go to the emergency room when he suddenly started having horrible back pain. His symptoms first appeared in March 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Larry’s primary care physician wasn’t seeing patients in person. Over the phone, the doctor recommended he take Tylenol, but when Larry’s symptom’s continued to worsen, his family knew he needed more help.
There were concerns about the potential for COVID-19 exposure at the emergency room, so Brooke contacted a gastroenterologist, stating that her father was in urgent need of tests. Doctors conducted an endoscopy, a colonoscopy and an ultrasound, the last of which revealed spots on Larry’s liver. He received a Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis in July 2020, at age 60.
Larry’s Penn Medicine doctors told him he had two treatment options, both of which involved different forms of chemotherapy (due to his advanced condition, he was not a candidate for a clinical trial). He began having treatment using FOLFIRINOX, which worked well initially. Larry’s pain went away, and he returned to his regular lifestyle, enjoying walks, bike rides and time with his family.
The effectiveness of the medication started to wane after about seven months, though, prompting Larry’s care team to switch to the other chemo regimen they’d identified before he began treatment. The new drug combination failed to produce the results they’d all hoped for, leading doctors to tell the family they’d exhausted all possibilities.
Undeterred, Brooke found a new oncologist in the Bronx, New York, who recommended a different course of chemo using another combination of drugs. Once again, the treatment worked initially, helping relieve Larry’s symptoms for another two or three months before they returned.
Larry’s stomach started swelling, and his doctor suspected a tumor and recommended Larry begin hospice care. Larry passed away August 13, 2021, but not before he had about a year to live in his beachside dream home – a year Brooke says that, despite its challenges, was one of the best years of Larry’s life.
He spent it meticulously designing every element of the family’s new home, putting his heart and soul into the project. He also spent it surrounded by the people who loved him most, maintaining his trademark optimism, positivity and generosity despite the many hardships he had to navigate.
“He was the one who would ask the doctors and nurses during chemo if they wanted a pizza or cheesesteaks,” Brooke said, noting that Larry’s mantra was to “always look on the bright side of life.” It’s a mantra Brooke and her brother, Michael, now try to live by, too.
Having grown up in Philadelphia as an avid 76ers and Eagles fan, Larry instilled a love of sports in his children, and he also encouraged them to cherish their friendships and nurture the personal relationships they had, just as he had made a point to do throughout his life.
“My Dad’s friends stepped up in a big way after his diagnosis,” Brooke said. “They treated him the same and ribbed him just like they always had, and he appreciated that. He didn’t want to feel like a ‘cancer patient,’ and they made sure he didn’t.”
Larry’s generous nature also encouraged his loved ones to advocate for others facing pancreatic cancer diagnoses. The family hosted a pancreatic cancer fundraising walk in Larry’s name and memory, donating proceeds from the event to pancreatic cancer research. Several of his family members also conducted birthday fundraisers through Facebook with proceeds benefiting the Seena Magowitz Foundation and its efforts to further pancreatic cancer research.
Brooke had stumbled across the foundation after reading the story of Camille Moses, a longtime pancreatic cancer survivor and advocate for the organization. Camille then put Brooke in touch with Roger Magowitz, the founder of the foundation, and the two struck up a friendship.
Now, nearly two years after Larry’s passing, the Simons family still lives in the beachside home Larry purchased and put his heart and soul into. “We love this house because it feels like him,” Brooke said.
Brooke, Michael and their mother, Paula, also continue to honor Larry’s legacy both by raising awareness about pancreatic cancer and by continuing to “look on the bright side of life,” just as Larry, himself, had always done. There’s even a memorial bench in his honor, which gives him a front-row seat to the beautiful Longport, New Jersey beach.
“He never gave up, and he wasn’t going to let his diagnosis slow him down,” Brooke said, of her father and how she hopes others will remember him. To this day, people approach Brooke, Michael and Paula to tell them the impact Larry left on their lives.
“He will always be our hero,” Brooke said.
“I just want people to know how special he was.”