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Daughter advocates for pancreatic cancer awareness (w/video)

By Elena Watts
Nov. 19, 2013 at 5:19 a.m.
Updated Nov. 20, 2013 at 5:20 a.m.

Clarisa Gonzalez prepares chicken parmesan with a few tips from her mom, Ronnie, for lunch. Nearly five years ago, her father, Hector Gonzalez, died of pancreatic cancer, and now, Clarisa wants to help promote  pancreatic cancer awareness in Victoria.

Clarisa Gonzalez prepares chicken parmesan with a few tips from her mom, Ronnie, for lunch. Nearly five years ago, her father, Hector Gonzalez, died of pancreatic cancer, and now, Clarisa wants to help promote pancreatic cancer awareness in Victoria.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

Clarisa Gonzalez, 30, reminisced with her father every day during the last month of his life.

During the 2008 Christmas holidays, Hospice of South Texas began caring for Hector Gonzalez. The former Victoria speech therapist, counselor and assistant principal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer eight months earlier.

"I sat and told him a story every day - some from when I was young," Clarisa Gonzalez said. "I didn't want to have any regrets."

Gonzalez plans to start a movement locally to increase awareness about the disease that claimed her 62-year-old father's life. She hopes to raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and to help other patients and their families cope with the disease.

While there are no plans to start an affiliate organization in Victoria, the 14-year-old national network supports community ambassadors like Gonzalez who raise money through various fundraising channels in their communities. Gonzalez hopes others affected by the disease embrace her goal and help with the effort.

First on Gonzalez's agenda is national "Purple with a Purpose" day Friday. November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Gonzalez encourages Crossroads residents to don their favorite purple attire to increase awareness of pancreatic cancer.

In 2013, nearly 40,000 Americans are expected to die from pancreatic cancer, and more than 2,000 of those will be Texans, according to the American Cancer Society's website.

Effective early detection methods do not exist for the fourth-leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network's website. Further complicating early detection, symptoms are usually not present in the cancer's early stages.

Symptoms include jaundice, abdominal or back pain, diabetes, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, fatigue, digestive difficulties and depression.

Gonzalez exhibited symptoms of his illness - weight loss and abdominal pain - as early as 2007, but his condition was misdiagnosed. Doctors first suspected diabetes and then a tumor in his gut before they found the cancer. It had already spread to his liver.

"Pancreatic cancer hides well," Gonzalez said. "It's usually too late by the time they find it."

Gonzalez was not a candidate for surgery or radiation and did not respond to five variations of chemotherapy.

He lived nine months despite doctors' predictions that he would live only three.

One of Gonzalez's best memories of her father dates to her Victoria High School days when he was her school counselor. She visited him every Thursday, and they shared lunch in his office.

Her father's spirit now visits her.

From the front pew of the funeral home during the rosary, Gonzalez looked back to see an apparition of her father. He sat in one of the back pews in the white tuxedo that he wore on his wedding day.

"He's still watching over us, protecting us," Gonzalez said. "I have felt his presence - somebody around me, calming me."

In memory of her father, Gonzalez wants to do for pancreatic cancer what Susan G. Komen did for breast cancer.


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