Dad and two adult sons golfing

Tom, Bob and Jon on a golf vacation shortly after Bob's diagnosis.

Editor’s note: We’re excited to announce the launch of PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative, the first large-scale study of its kind.

Four years ago, Tom and Jon Aronson raised money to fund research that laid the foundation for this study. The brothers said of the Early Detection Initiative, “It’s everything we could have ever hoped for. It makes us smile to know that our dad’s name will forever be linked to this incredible work.”

Imagine the perfect TV dad. Larger than life. Friendliest guy you’ll ever meet. He’s like the mayor –  everyone around town knows him and he knows everyone. His name is Robert, but everyone calls him Bob. His big personality matches his 6’5” frame. His family adores him. He seems to be the picture of perfect health.

Bob Aronson was Tom, Jon, and Molly Aronson’s dad.

At an annual optometry visit, Bob’s doctor had suspected he had diabetes, despite being in excellent health for a man in his early 50s. His primary care physician confirmed it.

One year later, Bob was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer.

His sons Tom and Jon found out about PanCAN through an online search and reached out to Patient Services for help.

To focus his concerns for his dad in a positive way, Jon ran a triathlon to raise money for PanCAN. His dad and Tom were there to cheer him on. He raised $30,000!

Sadly, just eight months after his diagnosis, Bob died November 28, 2006.

Family photo of grandfather, father and two adult sons at restaurant

Tom’s college graduation: Bob, Tom, Jon and Grandpa Harvey.

His sons were devastated. But they had a lingering suspicion due to conversations with his oncologists.

What if their dad’s diabetes was actually an early symptom of his pancreatic cancer?

Now imagine their shock when, months later, they read a PanCAN newsletter describing Dr. Anirban Maitra’s research project investigating that very connection between a new diabetes diagnosis and pancreatic cancer.

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The brothers reached out to PanCAN’s founder, Pamela Acosta Marquardt, to learn more. They had developed a relationship years before and remained close. Pam welcomed them to donate toward Dr. Maitra’s research grant.

Then she said, “If you can raise enough to fund the entire grant within two years, we’ll name it after your dad.”

That’s all the brothers needed to hear. They knew they had to do it, even if they didn’t have the $200,000 themselves. And that’s how it all began.

Over that two-year period, Tom and Jon’s family, friends and colleagues rallied around to raise money to fund the grant. They followed Dr. Maitra on social media, created dedicated Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote the crowdfunding, and posted updates and photos of the lab team and their progress. Jon even traveled to Dr. Maitra’s lab at MD Anderson in Houston to create videos of the doctor and his team to share on social media.

People were excited to help, contributing anywhere from ten dollars to $10,000. Little by little, it all added up.

Tom said, “It seemed like a crazy idea at first, and it did take a long time, but it worked. At the end of 2017, we raised the entire $200,000 for the “2014 Innovative Grant in Memory of Robert Aronson.”

Recently, Dr. Maitra caught up with Tom and Jon on Zoom, to thank them for their support.

He told them, “When you funded foundational research on biomarkers in pancreatic cancer-associated diabetes, you planted an important seed. That seed has now turned into a forest.

Hawaiian family vacation with father, two sons and daughter

Jon, Bob, Tom and Molly at Bob’s favorite vacation spot in Hawaii.

“Your gift was the harbinger of a significantly larger multi-institutional national effort commandeered by PanCAN — the Early Detection Initiative.

“You should feel proud that that first effort morphed into something truly transformational. We could not do the work we do without you.”

The brothers continue to fight pancreatic cancer in memory of their dad. It brings them comfort, much as the stories they keep telling about him do.

Jon fondly remembers being called to the school office at lunch once every week or two. His dad liked to surprise him by showing up right before noon to take him out to lunch.  “I’d always get to take a couple of friends, too. They loved it.

“One time we were eating at the local deli and dad noticed a bulb was out in a lighting fixture. So he just got up on a ladder and replaced it!”

Tom said wherever they went, his dad just seemed to know everyone.

“We were waiting for the elevator at a Michigan hotel.  As soon as the door opened, without missing a beat, my dad said, ‘President Ford, I’d like you to meet my son, Tom.’ Like they were long lost friends!  The two secret service agents hurried President Ford along.”

The seeds Tom and Jon sowed through the research grant they funded continue to grow today. That grant inspired subsequent projects for Dr. Maitra who continues to co-lead PanCAN’s Early Detection Initiative, a national effort with multiple renowned research institutions. As Dr. Maitra, described it, the impact of the Aronsons’ gift has indeed spread into a forest.

Tom and Jon, we are truly grateful for your vision, your generosity and the love you have for your dad. Because of it, you are changing the landscape for pancreatic cancer patients.

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