PANCREATIC CANCER PATIENT RON BREFKA

Ron Revs Up Support for Research Through “High Voltage” Motorcycle Event Series

Written By Julia Brabant
October 2021
Date of Diagnosis: 2016
Current Status: No signs of active cancer

A lifetime motorcycle enthusiast, Wisconsin’s Ron Brefka had become accustomed to living life in the fast lane when a 2016 pancreatic cancer diagnosis put the brakes on his future plans. Now, he’s back on the bike – and he’s also become a big-time player in the battle against pancreatic cancer by raising funds, increasing awareness and even donating his own blood and tissue to help researchers learn more about his rare form of the disease.

Ron, who’d always made a habit of eating healthy and exercising regularly, suspected something was up when he experienced his second bout of pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, within a relatively short span. A non-smoker and non-drinker, he’d had almost no serious health problems to date, but at his own urging, his doctor took X-rays and performed a biopsy. A pancreatic cancer diagnosis followed, and his doctor informed him that he had a very rare form of the disease, acinar cell pancreatic cancer, that affected only about 5% of pancreatic cancer patients. His doctor also said the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

Intense chemotherapy and radiation followed with the hope that the treatments would make Ron a stronger candidate for surgery. A referral landed Ron in the hands of Dr. Douglas B. Evans, M.D., F.A.C.S., a world-renowned surgical oncologist and cancer researcher with a focus on pancreatic cancer, at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The doctor performed a distal pancreatectomy, a complex procedure that involved removing most of his pancreas along with his spleen and lymph nodes.

“I had no idea who he was when he did my surgery,” said Ron, of Dr. Evans. “I didn’t know until after that I was in the hands of one of the best surgeons in the world.”

The procedure was the first surgery Ron had ever had, and it was a rough one. It took almost a year before he began to feel even somewhat like himself. He became insulin-dependent in the aftermath and saw his medical team regularly for follow-ups.

Advocacy Efforts

As Ron’s recovery progressed, he felt an urge to do more for others facing similar diagnoses. He’d already donated his blood and tissue to help advance medical research specific to his rare form of cancer, with the samples making their way from Wisconsin to Los Angeles, New York, London and Tokyo for further study by top oncologists and researchers from across the globe.

Wanting to do something on a local level, too, Ron came up with an idea for a High Voltage Motorcycle Show, thinking he could use his passion for motorcycles and connections in Milwaukee’s expansive motorcycle community to create a fundraiser for the “We Care” fund for medical innovation and research. The fund supports the efforts of Dr. Evans and other physicians and researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and the funds raised by the event would be earmarked specifically for pancreatic cancer research.

In 2016, Ron held the first annual High Voltage Motorcycle Show at Frank’s Power Plant, a Milwaukee bar and tavern. Within a couple years, the event outgrew the venue and moved to Humboldt Park, a 73-acre park in Milwaukee’s Bay View Neighborhood.

In 2018, Ron built upon the success of the High-Voltage Motorcycle Show and brought back the High Voltage Ice Races, an on-ice motorcycle race that would also serve as a fundraiser for We Care. As the event grew in size and scope, Ron received an invitation from the American Motorcycle Association to become a promotor for the Ice Race National Championships, leading to the formation of the High Voltage AMA Ice Race Grand Championship, an AMA-sanctioned event that crowns 14 new AMA National Champions each winter.

“We started in 2018 with 50 or 60 race entries,” Ron said of the event’s early days. “By 2021, we had almost 240 race entries and have now crowned dozens of AMA National Champions.”

As ice-racing interest resurged across Wisconsin, Ron ramped up his efforts to raise funds for pancreatic cancer research. In conjunction with the AMA, Ron launched a High Voltage Ice Race Hooligan Class race series, where large twin-cylinder motorcycles with specialty tires would race across the ice. It was the first hooligan class in AMA Ice Race Grand Championship history. At this and other events, Ron tries to keep admission free so young families can attend but raises money for research through collecting donations and conducting raffles.

His efforts led American Motorcyclist magazine, the highest-circulated monthly motorcycle magazine in the country, to ask he and Dr. Evans to appear on the covers of both its “Road” and “Race” editions in promotion of the event, marking the first time a Milwaukee motorcycle event made both covers simultaneously. Dr. Evans was unable to make the photo shoot due to his surgical schedule, but two of his nurse practitioners, Gabby and Beth, stood in for him and the framed image hangs in his office today.

A Second Surgery

While Ron’s first surgery resulted in clear scans for about four years, in 2020, blood tests revealed that Ron’s cancer had spread to his liver. His doctor said this was typical of his particular type of pancreatic cancer, and that it was not unusual for it to show up somewhere else several years later. After Dr. Evans petitioned the cancer council, Ron underwent a second surgery to remove a portion of his liver and his gallbladder. So far, his surgery has had promising results.

He does recommend, however, that anyone experiencing pancreatitis or other symptoms that may be indicative of pancreatic cancer undergo screening for the disease. He also encourages patients to act as their own advocates and speak up with they feel something is amiss. While he is unsure of exactly what caused his own cancer, he said the fact that his cousin, his father’s sister’s son, also had the disease led doctors to suggest that the root cause was likely genetic, rather than environmental.

Making the Most of Every Day

These days, Ron spends the bulk of his time planning future High Voltage events and dreaming up more ways to generate funding for cancer research.

“When the future is uncertain, you don’t want to waste time,” he said. “These events, and the funds they’ve raised, have been a silver lining on a black cloud. But none of it would have happened without all the friends, volunteers, sponsors and corporations who keep the wheels turning.”

Ron downplays his own efforts and contributions, but one of his friends described them well.

“Ron,” he’d said, “Life gave you lemons, and you turned them into lemonade for everyone to enjoy.”

For more about the High Voltage series of fundraisers and events, visit HighVoltage414.com. For more about the We Care fund for Medical Innovation and Research, visit MCW.edu.

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