WASHINGTON, D.C. — Diane Borrison is the kind of person who eats right, never smokes and walks regularly. She managed to stay healthy even when others in her household caught a cold or the flu.
But one day her skin and eyes started turning yellow and her skin started to itch.
“It didn’t really occur to me that I would get sick,” Borrison said. “I didn’t have a sense of even where my pancreas was or what it did.”
In 2006, doctors at the Stanford Medical Center removed the top of Borrison’s pancreas in a procedure called a whipple, to remove a tumor. Within a few weeks of surgery Borrison began chemotherapy and met her “chemo pal” Joan Pisani, who’d also had a whipple and was receiving the same chemo mixture.
The two began meeting up for coffee and Pisani told Borrison about a walk that had been organized by the local office of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. PanCAN, as it’s referred to, provides services specifically to people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“After I had some time to recover, I realized how fortunate I was and I decided I needed to do something to help others who were facing the same diagnosis,” Borrison said.
Borrison’s treatment plan was complete after six months of chemotherapy. But, only about 9 percent of people survive five years or more after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In September 2007, her chemo pal passed away. The city of Saratoga named a community center after Joan Pisani, in recognition of her work at the city’s recreation department.
“When you get to be a certain age, everybody knows someone who has died from it. That’s the sad fact,” Borrison said.
Borrison, who has lived in San Jose for 14 years, began volunteering as an advocate with PanCAN, and her first major focus was garnering support for a bill sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo that would help establish research into pancreatic cancer. Borrison went to a town hall meeting with then Rep. Mike Honda, where she asked him to support the bill. It took a year of reminders sent to his office before he joined as a cosponsor, but that experience got her hooked.
“I realized, gee, one person really can make a difference and that it takes a lot of one persons all across the country to do this,” she said.
Twelve years ago, information about pancreatic cancer was scarce and the diagnosis was largely seen as a death sentence. Researchers hesitated to look into a disease if their work wouldn’t be funded. But Eshoo’s law would require the National Cancer Institute to launch a research initiative into cancers that have low survival rates, like pancreatic cancer.
PanCAN began organizing yearly treks to Washington, D.C., with about 500 volunteers, to meet with legislators and try to lobby them. It took years of phone calls, meetings and e-mails for that bill to make its way to President Obama’s desk in 2018.
Borrison has traveled to D.C. for 11 years in a row to push for pancreatic research funding, becoming an experienced advocate and developing relationships on Capitol Hill. Last December, she celebrated the inclusion of $6 million for pancreatic cancer research by the Department of Defense.
“When I came to realize that 80 percent of the funding for research for all diseases comes from federal government, I realized how important the grassroots advocacy is for any research for disease,” she said.
The first year, her daughter tagged along to help Borrison, who was still recovering from chemo, walk around the capitol.
Last month, Eshoo invited Borrison for a special trip — to be her guest and attend the State of the Union address.
“Every single one of our guests were related to health care,” the congresswoman said. “My guest is a 13-year survivor of pancreatic cancer, which is nothing short of a miracle.”
In addition to being an advocacy leader, Borrison helps fundraise for the Silicon Valley PanCAN group. The organization estimates that about 222 people in Santa Clara County are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year. In 2018, 710 patients and caregivers utilized services provided by PanCan’s Silicon Valley office.
Volunteers who’ve worked with Borrison say she’s the epitome of an advocate for pancreatic cancer patients and survivors.
“I consider her one of our most stalwart champions,” said Kristin Reynolds, editorial director at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. “She’s relentless in all the best ways.”