When Julie M. Fleshman was hired to head the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network more than a dozen years ago, she became, at the age of 25, the group’s first full-time employee. Since then, the organization has grown into a volunteer network with 58 affiliates that are leading the charge for the cancer legislation.
“We’ve been able to build that community and build that place where families can come and they can get involved,” she said.
Fleshman had never heard of pancreatic cancer until 1999, when her father was diagnosed with the disease. He died four months later. Stunned and angry, she got in touch with doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, who told her about a new organization, run at that time by volunteers. She signed up to help and was hired as the executive director in April 2000, after graduating from law and business school at Santa Clara University. It was her first “real” job.
Four years later, the board of directors appointed Fleshman to her current role of president and CEO.
Under her leadership, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network has increased its budget of a couple of hundred thousand dollars in 2000 to more than $18 million for fiscal 2012-13. The group’s Patient and Liaison Services program has provided information about the disease to more than 65,000 pancreatic cancer patients and their families. And the National Cancer Institute’s funding for pancreatic cancer research has increased from $17.3 million to $99.5 million in 2011, according to the network.
But there’s still a long road ahead. Despite the funding boost, the group notes that only 2 percent of the NCI’s total budget is dedicated to research on pancreatic cancer, which is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the nation.
Fleshman said the legislation that is stalled in the Senate would be an important step toward her organization’s goal of doubling the pancreatic cancer survival rate by 2020, and she has made trips to Capitol Hill to try to plot a path forward.
But she attributes the network’s progress to the dedication of its volunteers. The group hosted its annual advocacy day event in Washington, D.C., in June, attracting nearly 650 participants.
“They’ve been relentless — that’s why it had as many co-sponsors as it did,” Fleshman said, referring to the current legislation. “I think that’s what makes our organization and our community special.”