By Lisa Shrewsberry
Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch called it the “Elephant in the Room” in what he titled and what was broadcast worldwide as “The Last Lecture.”
Lewisburg resident Carolyn Komar understands why Pausch gave less than two minutes of an over one-and-a-quarter-hour lecture to his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Her husband, Jim Cooper, also had to get past a poor prognosis to focus on something positive; Jim turned his elephant in the room into the momentum to raise funds for a cure, an intention his wife is carrying forward.
“When you get the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, it’s never a good thing,” says Carolyn. “Up until Jim lost the ability to relate to reality, which was just the last couple of days, he was determined he wasn’t gonna die from this. He was a fighter — very, very stubborn.”
Jim was half of the equation prompting Carolyn to join forces with others to form The Greenbrier Group to Fight Pancreatic Cancer. At the same time she was dealing with her husband’s fight, Carolyn was losing her father, Alfred “Al” Komar to the same disease. Jim and Al passed away within two weeks of each other last year, Jan. 12 and Jan. 1, respectively.
Following her husband’s example, Carolyn quickly turned devastation into empowerment.
“I had wanted to have a triathlon event. When Jim and I first talked about it he said, ‘Carolyn, just because you want to do something doesn’t mean everybody else wants to.’”
Far from being a doubter, Jim was simply walking his athletic, outdoorsy wife through the possibilities. He had worked in economic development; his forte was planning and branding ways to stimulate communities into action.
“He was good at bringing other people together, at finding out what they wanted to do, because if you don’t have buy-in, it’s not going to work.”
Before Jim’s death, the couple began conceptualizing the possibilities for rallying southern West Virginia to donate to the Lustgarten Foundation. Carolyn remembers researching the unfamiliar name behind the Johns Hopkins University clinical trial in which Jim was a participant. Lustgarten, she discovered, was a small foundation established in 1998 when an executive of Cablevision Systems Corp., Marc Lustgarten, died from pancreatic cancer. Cablevision Systems underwrites Lustgarten Foundation’s administrative costs, explains Carolyn, so 100 percent of every dollar given can go directly to research for a cure.
Without Jim by her side, Carolyn placed a classified ad in November 2012 seeking anyone interested in raising money and awareness for pancreatic cancer to meet her at the library. Five people showed at the initial meeting. Subsequent meetings grew to seven, nine, 11.
Finally, a band of friends who knew Jim and some who were strangers to Carolyn but whose lives had also been touched by the disease assembled themselves into The Greenbrier Group to Fight Pancreatic Cancer.
The team’s first fundraising attempt was a November showing of Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine Alumni Center. The open event raised $1,300. “We were thrilled,” remarks Carolyn. It was all the momentum they needed to try bigger things.
Carolyn decided to revisit her idea of hosting a triathlon, getting the level of buy-in Jim would’ve required to move forward. The theme of the event not only fit Carolyn’s interests, but embodied the healthy lifestyle Jim had tried hard to adopt for the last several years of his life, standing as one undisputed way to take up arms against life-threatening diseases including cancer.
The resulting event is a Sept. 8 Du/Triathlon at Lake Sherwood, Greenbrier County. The duathlon is a 1-mile starter run, followed by a 13.5-mile bike ride and a 5K (3.1 mile) run against the bucolic backdrop of the Monongahela National Forest.
The USA Triathlon-sanctioned triathlon event includes a 740-meter swim, followed by a 13.5-mile bike ride and a 5K run. The course is considered challenging enough for seasoned triathletes, but Carolyn and her team chose what would also be an acceptable course for first-timers. Both individuals and teams may still sign up for the races.
WVSOM Wilderness Medicine Club is helping organize the event and has taken The Greenbrier Group to Fight Pancreatic Cancer on as a community-service project. Their presence on race day will also ensure athlete safety.
Carolyn is well pleased that so many have responded to her mission, one Jim would’ve endorsed with his usual enthusiasm.
“Pancreatic cancer is one of the top five cancers, but it receives very little federal research funding — less than prostate or breast or colon cancer,” explains Carolyn. “If things don’t change, pancreatic cancer will actually surpass lung cancer in number of people killed each year. It is one of the less curable cancers and usually by the time it is diagnosed, it’s too late.”
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