When Loss Becomes a Reason to Fight: Nancy’s Story

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Lt. Col. Dino Murphy

Dino Murphy’s name is not one that is nationally known and celebrated. He was one man – a husband, father, brother, son, and active soldier for the United States Army. But in the wake of his passing, he has become more. Dino has become an anchor in the shadow of which his family stands proud and tall. For all of us, however, he can become a touchstone and a rally cry for the fight to survive.

Born May 16, 1965 on base in Germany, Dino moved around with his family as his father transferred from one Army base to the next. His sister, Nancy, recalls the vitality of life Dino possessed, always laughing with a twinkle in his eye, passionate about his motorcycles, and driven not only to serve his country, but to steadily and wholeheartedly love and take care of his wife and children. As Nancy says, Dino really lived. He lived each day to the fullest and gave it his all until the day he passed from this world.

Dino’s diagnosis came as a shock. Stationed in Germany, he became jaundiced. His doctors thought there could be a problem with his liver. But after several trips to Walter Reid, Dino found out he had cancerous cells on his pancreas. With the intention of performing an operation called whipple, in which the surgeon removes cancerous portions of the pancreas, bile duct, large intestine and stomach, doctors opened him up and found something unexpected. The tumor had wrapped itself around the portal vein. They closed him up, pronounced him with stage three pancreatic cancer, and suggested immediate chemotherapy and radiation.

Nancy says the family, who had already lost her mother’s sister inside a month to pancreatic cancer in 1990, was devastated. Immediately turning to research, Nancy read the startling statistic that only 6% of pancreatic cancer patients live to the five year mark. Undaunted, Dino began the fight. Jumping right into chemo and radiation, Nancy says Dino never let cancer own him or define him.

Dino bracelets

As he fought, Dino continued to live. He refused to get up every morning and live in the shadow of a death sentence. Instead, Dino taught his family and friends a new mantra: “Today is a good day.” He fought hard, lived hard, worked out, rode his motorcycles, told jokes, and loved his family in every way for as long as his body allowed. Watching someone live in such a way became a gift to everyone around him. Nancy says Dino taught her to see the good in the bad and he taught her about faith.

Finding God in the midst of her brother’s downward spiral was a struggle for Nancy. While the fight strengthened Dino’s faith, it shredded Nancy’s. She says it is not the popular thing to say, but admits that she did not feel God’s presence during that time period. She questioned everything. Why would God allow the monster of pancreatic cancer to claim her brother and take him so soon? Why could Dino’s fight for life not be enough? Why?

Dino lost the fight November 26, 2010. He left behind his wife, Marilyn, and three children, Michael, Alyssa and Lauren. Also surviving are his parents Rollie and Luciana Murphy, two brothers, Vincenzo and Marcello, and his sister, Nancy. By their sides a multitude of extended family and friends entered the grieving process bearing the weight of his passing with one phrase: “Today is a good day.” During the fight, Dino said he would “cowboy up” and fight the disease, and was glad he was the one to do it instead of someone else in the family. It was that fighting spirit, that desire to shoulder the burden for others, that choice to focus on the positive amidst a tidal wave of negativity, that buoyed Nancy’s spirit and enabled her not just to move forward, but to fight forward.

Dino N running

While Dino fought, Nancy organized her family to run the PurpleStride in Austin, TX. After he passed, they ran the PurpleStride in San Antonio, where Dino is buried. But that was just the beginning. The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network asked Nancy if she would start a group in Albuquerque. Having decided that she would continue the fight in Dino’s place, Nancy began taking action in bigger ways. She started the group in Albuquerque, spreading awareness with a small army of volunteers who have brought PurpleLight to Albuquerque, which is a way to honor those fighting and remember those who lost the battle against Pancreatic Cancer. Combining forces with Polly’s Run, they also host a 5k and 10k to raise awareness and money for pancreatic cancer.

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But that wasn’t nearly a big enough fight. Nancy and her husband, Jason, took the battle to Capitol Hill. They went two separate years to talk to senators and representatives about not cutting funding for pancreatic cancer. In fact, Nancy and Jason, along with other volunteers from around the country, were so persuasive that a bill was passed that requires the National Institute of Health to pay attention to all cancers with a less than 50% survival rate, with specific attention to pancreatic cancer.

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Nancy and Jason Bowles, Lisa Swayze, a doctor from Northwestern and an aid for Senator Bingaman, discussing Dino’s story and the need for more focus on pancreatic cancer research and awareness.

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Nancy and Jason, Capitol Hill

Back home in Albuquerque, they continued to fight, focusing most especially on the month of November, which is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. In the next few weeks you’ll notice a lot of purple splashed around on Good Morning America and other news networks, as well as all over social media and most especially, local businesses in Albuquerque. Purple is the awareness color for Pancreatic Cancer, like pink is for breast cancer. Joining Nancy and other volunteers for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, many local New Mexico businesses display purple with a purpose: awareness for the fight. Nancy says the businesses she frequents go purple in November by printing up purple menus, creating and serving purple drinks, draping their storefront displays in purple, serving purple frozen yogurt, cookies, and cupcakes. The Isotopes, a local baseball team, began Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Night, when Nancy and the other volunteers are able to bring awareness to hundreds of people at once. They also sit at health fair booths, deliver informative materials to cancer centers, and share their stories on local television stations. Nancy, herself, goes entirely purple for the month of November, wearing it every day and asking friends and family to post pictures of themselves wearing purple to her Facebook page. November is a strong, sustained battle cry for Nancy and in the four years she has been fighting, she has seen change come. More awareness. More money flowing in for research and change. More hope brought to those fighting and those who remain after a battle has been lost.

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PurpleLight, Albuquerque

And it all began with one man and one tenacious idea: “Today is a good day.” It’s a good day to live and love. It’s a good day to seek to understand the ways God uses you, in small and large ways, to further his love and influence in the world around you. It’s a good day to stand up and fight for someone that has a small voice or no voice at all.

Breast cancer awareness, Nancy reminds, once started small, too. But people soon had enough of the loss and the utter misery of hopelessness in the face of defeat after defeat. They made the choice to stand up and do something more. Now, as a nation, we go pink for the month of October. We raise awareness and money that has made a difference in the lives of countless women and men who are now survivors instead of victims. Why not undergird a purple November, and fight to lift up names of survivors instead of victims. There are those who survive. They are few in number, but mighty in voice if we raise ours with them. If we change that stark 6% survival statistic, what could we gain for our loved ones? What could we change for our own futures?

Nancy says she knows where Dino is. She feels him strong and vibrant on the other side. Her faith in God is still a struggle, but it is a struggle she moves forward in.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.’” (Jeremiah 29: 11 – 14, New Living Translation)

We often think of God’s plans for us beginning and ending with our time here on earth. But what if it’s more? What if His plans for us extend beyond the grave? The legacy we leave behind with our family and friends can mean more than just the words and deeds of one lifetime. In Dino’s case, his one life has led to a fight for many more. Who he was in life has become larger in the wake of his passing, enabling his zeal for his own life to transcend into zeal for the lives of many, his personal fight against pancreatic cancer becoming a nation’s fight toward further understanding of a wicked disease that claims too many too quickly.

This year, Thursday, November 13th, is Purple for a Purpose Day. Different pancreatic cancer action organizations are combining forces globally to promote World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day. It’ll be a good day. And you’ll look great in purple. Wear it with the purpose of joining a good fight and honoring the life of Dino Murphy. Because today is a good day.

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