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Milt Arenson accepts the Jefferson Award on behalf of his family.
The Jefferson is considered to be the Noble Prize of community service.
Click Here to veiw the story



A loving memorial: After pancreatic cancer claims patriarch,
Scott family goes to work to raise money for research

By Anita Srikameswaran, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They aren't scientists, and they don't have trust funds, but the Arenson family is playing a key role in furthering pancreatic cancer research.

During the past eight years, they have collected about $650,000 for the Nathan S. Arenson Fund, which helps University of Pittsburgh researcher Olivera Finn get fledgling clinical trials off the ground to develop a vaccine against the cancer.

"It's one thing when a rich person donates money and just writes a check," Finn said. "It's another thing when a family doesn't have money but puts so much work into it and gets the community organized."

When Arenson, of Scott, had stomach pains and lost weight, doctors couldn't immediately diagnose the problem. He eventually became jaundiced and they performed abdominal surgery in December 1993 to see what was wrong.

"And they closed him back up and said it was pancreatic cancer," recalled his daugher, Lisa Arenson Gillespie, 47, also of Scott. "There was nothing they could do."

Then, as now, pancreatic cancer is often not discovered until it has progressed to an untreatable point. Arenson died on May 31, 1995, at age 67.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 30,700 people were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year and that 30,000 died from it. One year after diagnosis, 21 percent of patients are still alive. After five years, the survival rate is 4 percent.

Enthusiasm, involvement


Arenson's wife, Adrienne, decided to start a fund honoring his memory, but it was Gillespie's sons and their friends who got the momentum going. The preteens came up with the idea of having Chartiers Valley High School host a charity basketball game, with the proceeds going to the Arenson Fund.

They called it "Hoops for a Cure."

"They named it and they did the logo," Gillespie said. "As a family, we backed them on it."

In six weeks of hustle, they got the school district's permission, organized the games and gave tickets away, boosting attendance to more than 750 people. Gillespie and her siblings then asked for donations.

The first Hoops in April 1996 raised $35,000.

"We went into this blind," Gillespie noted. "I still am learning every day what you can do, what you can't do."

After collecting the sum, the Arenson family had to figure out what to do with it. So they interviewed several doctors and researchers, Finn among them.

"They were not educated in biomedical sciences to know where the money might be needed," the researcher recalled. "So they asked me where I thought the money would be best used."

Finn told them that it wasn't hard for scientists to get funding for lab and animal studies, but it was much more challenging to find adequate support for clinical translation, meaning taking basic science findings into human trials.

Although research protocols might be approved by federal regulators and university overseers, it could take two or more years to get start-up money from the National Institutes of Health, the American Cancer Society or other funding agencies.

But if funds were immediately available, a trial could get started promptly. Then when federal funds are finally granted, they would be used to continue the study.

So "we can start putting money into the fund that will only be used for running clinical trials and clinical trials monitoring," Finn told the family.

Her suggestion, and her plain speaking, struck a responsive chord with the Arensons.

"Everybody could understand what she was talking about," Gillespie said. "She's so compassionate and so realistic. She doesn't paint a picture that's not feasible."

The Arensons decided to help Finn achieve her goals and to continue their efforts to raise money for cancer research. The next Hoops for a Cure will be held on April 30. Three basketball games are played, including a match-up between Pittsburgh Steelers football players and alumni of Chartiers Valley.

"We've been kicking their butts," said proud alumnus Gillespie. This year, her nephew will be the last of many Arensons to graduate from the high school.

The annual fund-raising event will likely continue, though, because many parents and children in the community are determined to carry on the tradition, Gillespie said.

Finn said she often looks at her picture of Nathan Arenson.

"He seems to have a very sweet, kind face," she said. "You think if you had known this person, you probably would have liked him very much."

He was a very humble man, Gillespie said, who would be touched and probably a bit surprised by the work going on in his name.

Other fund-raising efforts have been added. In November, another family who has lost members to pancreatic cancer hosts an annual luncheon to benefit the Arenson fund. Recently, a school cheerleader organized a prom fashion show and one of Finn's lab workers will run a marathon to collect donations.

"They're not check writers, they're workers," Gillespie said. "That's what makes it even more special."

Their efforts have helped Finn promptly start two trials of vaccines to treat pancreatic cancer. And, she has been able to pool funds from different sources because she got studies under way. Her lab's findings also stimulate research at other centers.

Finn said the Arenson fund accounts for about one-fifth of her research funding, making it the smallest financial contributor.

"But it's probably the most meaningful to me," she said. "It's community support as well as the freedom to do what I want."

She would like to one day make vaccines that would prevent pancreatic cancer from developing. Gillespie shares that goal and hopes that researchers will devise a simple, reliable test that allows earlier diagnosis.


Adrienne Arenson with her late husband, Nathan,
who died of pancreatic cancer and in whose memory
the Arenson fund was established.

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