April 23, 2012

Godwinks: A Story of Faith, Family, Community and Love

 By Jennifer LoConte

They are defined as those moments when you realize there is something at work greater than you.  Some might compare a Godwink to a sheer coincidence, but to Greg Griffith and his family, coincidences like theirs are more than chance happenings.  Greg – a husband, father and business management instructor at Penn State University, is battling stage IV metastatic pancreatic cancer.  It’s an aggressive disease that has no cure, no early detection and frankly, one that most people do not live longer than 6 months.  According to the National Cancer Institute, pancreatic cancer is the 4th deadliest cancer, yet only 2% is spent on funding.  In Greg’s case, however, he has already beaten the odds, living with this disease for the past 18 months.  He’s not merely surviving but living his life as best he can, which to Greg means giving 100% each day and appreciating the Godwinks that surround him.  He says, “There are moments of great significance that happen all around us, only most are too busy to notice them.”

While most of us would shut down and even give up with a diagnosis like Greg’s, he continues to inspire not only his family and friends, but anyone he comes in contact with, including his medical team.  Dr. James Moser, Co-Director of UPMC Pancreatic Cancer Center and Associate Professor of Surgery, calls Greg “A giant among men.”  He is amazed that Greg’s advanced stage of the disease has had no effect on his quality of life.  Moser says, “Unfortunately, treatment for pancreatic cancer hasn’t changed since the invention of the Whipple procedure in 1935.  Even the drug of choice, Gemcitabine chemotherapy hasn’t been improved upon since it was discovered in the 1990’s.”  Moser, who was also Randy Pausch’s physician (author of The Last Lecture), is a world-renowned pancreatic cancer surgeon, conducting research and clinical studies in order to one day find a cure.  He attended both fundraisers held by the Griffith family, one last summer and most recently, this past July.  For a doc who sees this disease daily, Moser has become so inspired by Greg that he emotionally wasn’t able to finish his speech that night.  Greg, who was not feeling well and unable to attend says, “People appreciate Dr. Moser’s passion for this disease and that night, they also appreciated his compassion.”

One of the first Godwinks occurred early on in Greg’s diagnosis.  He explains, “I was about to have a PET Scan in order to assess my cancer and was sitting in a wheelchair in the hospital hallway.  I had just been told that there was a significant tumor on my pancreas and felt like I had the wind knocked out of me.  Suddenly a woman came towards me, touched my shoulder and told me that I was a beautiful man.”  Another time, he was in a Pittsburgh mall, being waiting on by a clerk resembling a California surfer, complete with spiked hair and tattoos and wearing a Live Strong bracelet.  The clerk noticed Greg’s prayer bracelet and told Greg that he was a 9-year melanoma survivor and after wearing his bracelet for 5 years, promptly took it off and handed it to Greg, saying, “Now I’d like you to have this.”  Greg remarks, “How neat is it that a guy you don’t even know brings out the best in the human spirit.”  Greg wore the Live Strong bracelet until he met another cancer patient, a 15-year old girl.  He gave it to her and asked that when she was better she give it to someone who needs it.  He often wonders how many other lives that bracelet has touched.

After becoming a patient of Moser, Greg immediately joined a clinical trial and although he placed in the control group receiving the current chemo instead of the study drug, his body reacted better than most and the cancer was actually disappearing. Surprisingly, he even continued his exercise regimen at the local Y. Calling them his “Chemo Warriors,” fifteen family members and friends, including longtime friend Congressman Bill Shuster took turns accompanying Greg on the weekly 2-hour drive from his home in Hollidaysburg to Pittsburgh for treatment.  Pleased with the results, Moser and his team recommended further treatment and they would journey into unchartered territory.  Greg would be the 41st person in the world to undergo a 3-part procedure, beginning with a relatively new Pinpoint Radiation with Cyber Knife, Radiofrequency Abrasion of the liver and finally, the Whipple procedure.  Greg was able to undergo the first two, but by May, the cancer had once again metastasized and he was unable to go through with the final surgery.

Heartbroken but not defeated, the family regrouped.  Even though there is no additional treatment for Greg on the horizon, he and his family continue to live their lives just as they’ve always done.  Greg says, “While a lot of people diagnosed with a terminal disease shut down, I refused to let this cancer be a white elephant.  We talked about it with our 2 sons from day one and the boys continue to go to school at Penn State and work part-time.  This cancer is just a part of our lives now.”  He remains steadfast and thankful to his wife Cathy whom he says, “It must be difficult for her to see a piece of the person she loves fade away a little bit each day.”  He says that he wouldn’t be where he is today physically, emotionally and spiritually if it wasn’t for her and adds, “Not every PC patient gets the amount of time that I’ve been given.”  Cathy, his wife of nearly 26 years remarks, “We could have wallowed in the tragedy of stage IV pancreatic cancer, but instead we made a vow as a family to let God take the wheel.”  Truly profound words from an inspiring family.

Greg also considers Godwinks to be all those connections he has made and continues to make while living this journey.  When Greg was first diagnosed, Cathy set up a Carepage on the UPMC Website, detailing daily activities, medical procedures, chemotherapy and surgeries. Hundreds of people, some complete strangers continue to receive the email updates and write messages to the family.  They continue to thank Greg and his inspiration that has changed their own lives for the better.

The Griffiths will continue to hold fundraising events each year.  Griff’s Run and Gun is a two-day event that includes a benefit dinner with silent auction and guest speakers as well as a basketball tournament the following day.  The combination of both last year and this year’s events totaled an unbelievable $80,000 which goes directly towards pancreatic research through the team of Dr. Moser and his associate, Dr. Herbert Zeh at The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.  These dollars directly fund clinical trials where new treatments are being developed to offer a better tomorrow for patients as well as additional research of this deadly disease.  Moser comments, “There were close to 600 people who attended this year’s fundraiser and the only empty chair was Greg’s.  The example that Greg sets for the rest of us is a powerful message of hope and determination to leave this world a better place.  I’m a better person for knowing him.” Anyone who meets Greg and his family would say the same thing, including me.


Godwinks was written by Jennifer LoConte, a free-lance writer based in the Lehigh Valley, met Greg Griffith after losing her mother to pancreatic cancer in 2009.  She is also the founder of J’s Run, an annual 5k to benefit pancreatic cancer awareness and raise dollars towards research.