Philadelphia Flyers assistant coach Ian Laperriere did not know about pancreatic cancer until 2007 when his father was diagnosed with it at the age of 52.
Three years later, Michel Laperriere lost his battle. The ordeal educated Ian Laperriere about the severe impact of the disease.
"When we all found out it just hit us like a brick," Laperriere said. "He fought for three years, I'll give him that. That's a tough cancer. There's no good cancer but that's probably one of the worst. You don't last that long. Even as strong as you are and as much fight as you put in, that cancer is very aggressive and it's tough to survive."
Laperriere played 16 seasons in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche and the Flyers. He signed with the Flyers as a free agent before the 2009-10 season and helped lead them to the Stanley Cup Final.
Once he arrived in Philadelphia, he inquired about raising awareness for pancreatic cancer. He has since participated in PurpleStride Philadelphia, the city's signature 5K run, ran a marathon through the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network's Team Hope program and did an ironman triathlon to raise money.
"I try different ways to help out," Laperriere said.
Laperriere and Kings general manager Dean Lombardi are active voices supporting the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, one of the charitable partners of the NHL's annual Hockey Fights Cancer initiative, which ends Friday on World Pancreatic Cancer Day, launched in 2014 to raise global awareness and unite different organizations fighting for the same cause.
"We want to make the world see purple," said Julie Fleshman, President and CEO of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. "That's really what the day is all about, raising awareness so that people understand the sense of urgency to raise more dollars and invest more money in research. Partnering with the NHL and Hockey Fights Cancer is another opportunity to do that same thing. It's raising the overall public awareness of this disease, the need for people to take action and to get involved with what we're doing."
Lombardi's brother-in-law, Thomas Grissom, was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December 2009 and ultimately died from the disease. In 2010, Lombardi's wife, Wandamae, learned about the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, whose corporate offices are located in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The Kings have since hosted awareness nights during home games and have produced public service announcements.
"Obviously when celebrity figures and national sports teams get involved in a movement like ours it's really significant," Fleshman said. "It's had a true impact in helping to get people to understand the urgency of the need for people to get involved in this, whether it's through volunteering, donating or taking action.
"All of that helps to raise the national awareness and consciousness of, hey, this is something that's serious. It's urgent. Unfortunately the problem is getting worse and we need the public to take notice and to get involved."
Fleshman, who lost her father after a four-month battle with pancreatic cancer in 1999, became the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network's first full-time staff member, the first executive director in April 2000, and president and CEO in July 2004. The network's staff has grown to more than 100 members with a budget exceeding $22 million. In addition, advocacy and grassroots efforts have expanded to more than 60 affiliates nationwide and yielded an $84.1 million increase in federal funding for pancreatic cancer research.
In October, the NHL and NHLPA awarded the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network a grant they will allocate to its Community for Progress professional development and mentorship program for its scientific researchers designed to strengthen the pancreatic cancer research community.
"It's not just funding research but really creating a community of researchers that are working together to solve this very difficult and challenging problem," Fleshman said. "The Hockey Fights Cancer grant that we received last month is going toward that program to help us grow that community for progress."
There is much more work to be done, however. Fleshman said the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer remains seven percent. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer death, and is expected to become the second-leading cause of cancer death by 2020, which increases the sense of urgency to pour resources into finding a cure.
"The only way we can do that is raise money and the only way we can raise money is to put it out there," Laperriere said. "You hear about breast cancer [awareness], which is important as well, but you don't hear as much for pancreatic cancer. It's our job to put the word out there.
"We need to find a way to talk about [pancreatic cancer]. We don't have that many survivors and we need to find a way to put the word out."