Kasselman, a 10-year pancreatic cancer survivor, raises awareness and money for pancreatic cancer research through the Bloomfield Hills-based Sky Foundation.
By Danielle Prieur
Sheila Sky Kasselman started to feel sick in January 2007, but it wasn’t until September of that year that she was diagnosed. An earlier CT scan had missed the tiny tumor growing on her pancreas.
An endoscopic ultrasound found the tumor, and then a biopsy confirmed that she had pancreatic cancer.
“That began the odyssey of learning that I had the most aggressive form of pancreatic cancer,” says Kasselman, 78, a West Bloomfield resident.
After her diagnosis, Kasselman received chemotherapy and radiation at Henry Ford Hospital. Her doctors also recommended she have a Whipple, a procedure that removes tumors in the pancreas. The grueling surgery took 10.5 hours as surgeons removed part of Kasselman’s pancreas, duodenum, stomach and gallbladder.
“It’s like five surgeries in one,” she says. “Four months after, you’re functional, but you’re not ever back to normal. But, from somewhere, I got this inner strength I didn’t know I had.”
One of her physicians, Dr. Ann Silverman, now at UP Health System-Marquette, inspired her to not only beat cancer, but also start a foundation to help others do the same.
Still recovering from her Whipple, Kasselman started making calls to friends who would help her build her Bloomfield Hills-based nonprofit, Sky Foundation Inc.
They had their first meeting in June 2008 at a longtime friend Edwina Davis’ house. There, they planned a women’s brunch held at The Village Club in Bloomfield Hills, where local women could network with national oncology experts and learn more about the disease. This year, the women’s event will be held May 2 at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham. Along with raising awareness about the disease, which the American Cancer Society says will kill about 21,300 women this year, the foundation organizes galas that fund $30,000 to $100,000 grants that support researchers specializing in pancreatic cancer.
“People will ask me, ‘How many mice have you funded Sheila?’ ” Kasselman jokes. “Lots and lots of mice.”
Davis, an advisory board member, says the foundation exists because of Kasselman’s dedication. “She works on it every single day,” Davis says, “and she’s grateful that her health is good enough that she can do that.”
This work is important, Davis adds, because there are still no good early detection tests. The pancreas is deep inside the body, which makes it difficult for doctors to detect tumors during routine exams.
“It’s been her mission to fund the research that hopefully finds a blood test or urine test or medical test that would help with early detection,” Davis says. “We want the research to grow, to become more encompassing, more definitive so that we get some answers.”
Ten years into her role as a cancer survivor and founder of a thriving nonprofit, Kasselman is planning the next series of educational YouTube videos, which aim to help people recognize the symptoms.
She wants to engage a new generation in the fight against the disease, so she’s particularly excited about this year’s video themed after the popular “Carpool Karaoke” series. Previous videos included Huntington Woods actor-singer Eric Gutman rapping the symptoms of pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Ken Levin, a radiation oncologist at Henry Ford Health System, has known Kasselman since her first chemotherapy treatments. He says he isn’t surprised she turned her experience into a call to action.
“She just wanted to make a difference,” Levin says. “In her own quietly grateful way, she decided to give back a bit and raise some money. And by helping others, she made the best of a difficult situation.”
It’s not this gratitude that makes her unique, he adds, but what she’s chosen to do with it — extending hope to patients and the people she touches through her foundation.
Sky Foundation Inc. offers resources for people recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Visit skyfoundationinc.org.
Pancreatic cancer symptoms may include:
• Back pain
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
Source: Sky Foundation Inc.