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Pancreatic Cancer Survivor Honored, Others Recognized, at KCI's Celebration of Survivorship, Sept. 23

More than 100 cancer survivors, their families and caregivers attended the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute’s 7th Annual Celebration of Survivorship on Sept. 23. Each year, the Karmanos Cancer Institute bestows the Patricia Milner Sachs Heart of a Survivor Award to an outstanding cancer survivor who exemplifies compassion, devotion and goes above and beyond to help other cancer survivors on their journey. This year’s award was presented to Sheila Sky Kasselman,a pancreatic cancer survivor from West Bloomfield.

This year’s Celebration of Survivorship titled, The Heart of a Survivor, A Celebration of Strength, was emceed by WXYZ Channel 7’s Alicia Smith, co-anchor of Action News this Morning, who through her reporting raises awareness of important issues and inspirational people who are an example of hope. Keynote speaker was Molly MacDonald, founder of The Pink Fund. MacDonald, a breast cancer survivor, shared her own personal story of struggle, hope and resilience which led her to found The Pink Fund to help breast cancer patients, who are undergoing cancer treatment, with short-term financial aid to help offset expenses.


Gerold Bepler, M.D., Ph.D., is joined by guest speaker Molly MacDonald, awardee Sheila Sky Kasselman and emcee Alicia Smith from WXYZ Channel 7.

Gerold Bepler, M.D., Ph.D., president and CEO of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, recognized the courage of cancer survivors, as well as those who support them. He thanked cancer survivors for helping to support cancer research by participating in clinical trials which helps in the advancement of new cancer treatments. He also noted the progress being made in cancer treatments with new cancer-fighting drugs and targeted therapies; but also stated the importance of personal support in the cancer journey.  

“We realize that providing the best medical treatments is only part of a patient’s healing journey,” said Dr. Bepler. ”We know those diagnosed with cancer, along with their loved ones, also need support beyond the medicine including emotional, educational and social support. I feel very fortunate to work with the talented and compassionate team at Karmanos who understand the importance of this valuable component to living with and through cancer. And, I continue to be inspired and uplifted by our patients and other cancer survivors who, in spite of their challenging diagnosis, help others survive their cancer journey.”  


Sheila Sky Kasselman

Sheila Sky Kasselman, this year’s Patricia Milner Sachs Heart of a Survivor Award winner, demonstrates determination and selfless kindness as she raises awareness of pancreatic cancer and funds to support research for the development of an early detection blood test to diagnose pancreatic cancer in its early stage, when it’s most treatable.

Kasselman’s cancer journey started in 2007. The West Bloomfield retired financial planner was used to bringing people together to talk about, encourage and strategize to assure financial stability. Her instincts and attention to detail made her question the fatigue she was feeling several months earlier. She was in good shape and took care of herself but when she started losing weight for no reason, she decided to make a doctor’s appointment.

She had several tests that came back negative but she persisted. She knew something was just not right.

Kasselman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Oct. 2007. This vivacious, active mother and grandmother was devastated but determined to fight this disease. Due to her persistence, her cancer was actually caught in the early stages, which is often not the case with this pancreatic cancer.

She consulted with her doctor Ann Silverman, M.D., FACG, from Henry Ford Health System, and decided to have the Whipple procedure – a major surgery that impacts the pancreas, small intestine, bile duct and stomach.

A few months after her surgery, Kasselman’s fight and passion to live, and her tenacity to help others led to the creation of the Sky Foundation, Inc. in 2008. Through the foundation, Kasselman is raising awareness and funds to help researchers Michael Tainsky, Ph.D., and Steven Dudas, Ph.D., both from the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University School of Medicine; in collaboration with Dr. Silverman; develop a blood test to detect pancreatic cancer in its early stage.

To date, through fundraising efforts of the Sky Foundation, Kasselman has raised more than $300,000 to support this critical biomarker discovery work at the Karmanos Cancer Institute. The concept is to analyze the body’s own immune system to detect cancer-associated antibodies in the blood. The initial stage of the study has led to the identification of a series of reactive markers. Although the researchers involved in this work are very encouraged by these initial results, further research is needed. The goal is to one day have a diagnostic test for the early detection of pancreatic cancer.

The fund has also supported two blood draws to obtain important serum samples from individuals considered at high risk for pancreatic cancer:

  • Those who have one or more family members with this disease
  • Those who have hereditary pancreatitis, and
  • Those who carry the BRCA 2 gene

Kasselman reaches out to other survivors and families impacted by pancreatic cancer, even those who have lost a loved one to this disease. She engages people with her compassion, energy, vigilant determination, love and support, advocating for all who have been or will be touched by this disease.

“This is a special honor because it’s about survivorship and what you can accomplish as a survivor,” said Kasselman. “When you’re diagnosed with cancer you’re either paralyzed with fear or you take the opportunity to make a difference with the cards you’ve been dealt. With all that I’ve been through in my life, I believe this is my ‘finest hour’ and I feel grateful that I’m able to do what I can to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer and work toward saving lives.”

In addition to Kasselman, others nominated for this year’s Heart of a Survivor award included: Denise Abdullah of Dearborn; Michele Boulton of Romeo; Donna Bruck of Monroe; Beth Cooke of Farmington Hills; Deb Duran of Lincoln Park; Kathleen McFry of Canton; Doug Pergament of South Lyon; Heather Sarkozi of Westland; Donna Ward of Clinton Township; and Patti York of Clawson.

This celebration evolved out of Karmanos’ Survivorship University, a series of informative sessions offered free to all cancer patients, their family members and caregivers to help educate and empower cancer survivors through their cancer experience. Survivorship University was the vision and creation of Karmanos community educator Patricia Milner Sachs who lost her 11-year battle with melanoma cancer in June 2006. Throughout her 12-year career at the Karmanos Cancer Institute, Milner Sachs helped thousands of cancer survivors and their families navigate the everyday challenges of living with, through and beyond cancer. Her husband David Sachs remains an active Karmanos volunteer today and he and the Milner family continue to support the Celebration of Survivorship events.

It’s estimated that nearly 1.6 million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year. With more than 11 million cancer survivors in the nation, the Karmanos Cancer Institute continues to raise awareness of prevention, advocates for and helps empower cancer survivors. 

Complimentary educational sessions are open to all cancer survivors, their families and caregivers through Survivorship University. This is one of several supportive services the Karmanos Cancer Institute offers to help those going through the cancer journey.

For more information on Survivorship University and other cancer services, call 1-800-KARMANOS (1-800-527-6266)

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