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Pancreatic cancer research tissue bank serves as tribute to man’s passion for life

Ronald Burklund Eich died May 14, 2013, from pancreatic cancer. He was 65 years old.

Oct. 16, 2013 College News - Ronald Burklund Eich had already survived cancer. It was, in fact, his three-year anniversary of being colon cancer-free when his oncologist noticed an area of concern during Eich’s quarterly follow-up screening in 2011. The spot was on his pancreas.

Pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all the major cancers: 95 percent of patients die within five years of diagnosis; 76 percent die within the first year.

Despite a winning attitude, spectacular care and a loving support system, Eich was not an exception to these harsh odds, but his wife, Kathryn Walker-Eich, is working with researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) to turn the tables on pancreatic cancer so that future patients may survive.

With a $100,000 commitment, she has established the Ronald Burklund Eich Pancreatic Cancer Tissue Bank, which will provide important resources to MCW Cancer Center investigators in the Department of Surgery, under the direction of Susan Tsai, MD, MHS, Assistant Professor of Surgery. Dr. Tsai, Douglas B. Evans, MD, Chairman and the Donald C. Ausman Family Foundation Professor in Surgery, and the MCW research team are working hard to make a meaningful difference in the lives of pancreatic cancer patients and their families.

“The decision to generate funding for pancreatic cancer research was opportunistic, as well,” Walker-Eich said. “Friends and family get emotionally and spiritually involved in the cancer battle waged by patients like my husband. Everyone wants to do something, but there is typically nothing anyone can do, particularly once a terminal diagnosis is levied. Yet, we see life very much on the line and scientific discovery bottlenecked by research funding gaps. By setting up a research fund and inviting loved ones to participate through donations, we get everyone tugging on the oars, pancreatic cancer awareness soars, benefactors become stakeholders in the cancer equation, and essential funding is directed to the edge of innovation where people like Dr. Evans will one day cure pancreatic cancer. I am delighted that my husband’s legacy can bridge supply and demand in this life-giving manner.”

“Ron had the great leader’s ability to bring out the best in people. He listened well, and people loved him, but the other side of the coin is that he loved people.  In business, no matter how heated the argument, Ron was always the coolest man in the room.  Importantly, his priority for dignifying others was rooted in his faith in the goodness of God and the essential goodness of man as a creature of God.  Ron understood that we are all in ‘this’ together.”

 – Kathy Walker-Eich –

A resident of Lake Forest, Ill., Eich was treated for his colon cancer close to home, but the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer began a nationwide search for the best treatment option. After ruling out multiple programs based on expertise or timing, the Eichs were referred by someone at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas to the Medical College of Wisconsin, a place with which Walker-Eich was already familiar from her studies in bioethics.

At MCW, the Eichs met Dr. Evans, an expert in personalized pancreatic cancer treatment and biology. Walker-Eich described him as “a breath of fresh air,” and his confidence was a great reassurance throughout the process. “I really appreciate the experience we had at Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin,” she said.

Eich, who was recently retired after a 30-year career with Northern Trust Company as a trusts and estates officer, fought the disease calmly and courageously, his wife said, but he passed away on May 14, 2013, at age 65. Walker-Eich has since been uniting his family and friends in charitable efforts to support Dr. Evans’ research.

“Ron and Kathy Eich, as well as their friends and relatives, have demonstrated a true commitment to the patient of tomorrow,” Dr. Evans said. “Research supported by their generosity will make a meaningful difference in the lives of those destined to battle pancreatic cancer in the future.”

Their contributions to tissue banking are important because limited access to human tissue is currently an impediment to research progress. MCW has placed a priority on collecting and storing all pancreatic cancer specimens removed in the operating room to study the disease and provide access to the samples to researchers here and across the country. The tissue can be used to study the genetic profile of the cancer as well as to test response to experimental therapies.

“Pancreatic cancer is the fourth most prevalent cancer in the U.S., and the rates of occurrence continue to climb,” said MCW President and CEO John R. Raymond, Sr., MD. “Establishment of the Ronald Burklund Eich Pancreatic Cancer Tissue Bank is a profound way of honoring a vibrant man whose life ended far too soon.”

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Page Updated 10/16/2013