Two and a half years ago, I was earning my living at 41,000 feet, doing about 500 miles an hour.
The biggest group of people that I talked to after I told my passengers to sit down and buckle up was Air Traffic Control. Never did it cross my mind that I would be involved with a cancer non profit. I was going to fly until they made me quit or I busted my medical. I was raised in aviation with a crop duster father making sure I was taught about the “magic” of flying. When you hear a pilot talking about how planes fly with lift, thrust, drag, and weight, ignore him. It’s magic that keeps a plane in the air. That and money.
In 1996, I met Nikki Mitchell at a small airport outside of Nashville and that chance meeting completely changed my life. We became adventure buddies and just two years later, she and I flew a single engine plane around the world together. We found that we traveled well together, had the same can-do attitude, and loved to laugh.
In December of 2010, she called me with her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She was given 3-6 months and coldly told that there is no cure. That was when we started our pancreatic cancer adventure. Thirty one months later, after surgery, chemo, radiation, clinical trials, and many hospital stays, Nikki left this earthly adventure to finally get all the answers to the questions we ask ourselves while we walk through this life.
During her care, she and I talked about the things she experienced, the needs we observed, and the patients’ struggles. I was her caregiver during that time and I knew that there was no way I could return to 41,000 feet and 500 miles an hour; I had seen too much. Nikki was thrilled when I told her that I was quitting my job to do this. She immediately got her notebook out to give me my first orders. With that single act, The Nikki Mitchell Foundation became a reality.
NMF is raising awareness about pancreatic cancer on a daily basis. We make a lot of noise and demand to be heard. With our Bridge of Wings program, we make sure that we can bridge Nikki’s giving spirit with a patients’ ability to get to their treatment. In addition to this gas card program, we manage The Autumn Leaves Project in partnership with Butch Walker. The program was formed in honor of his dad, Big Butch, who died from pancreatic cancer. We are also seeking out an early detection research program that we feel has the best potential to make a difference in finding a cure for this horrific disease because NMF believes early detection is the key.
For the first 18 months, NMF was based out of my home, garage, truck, and coffee shops. Now, we have office space in a re-purposed slaughterhouse. Nikki was a huge animal lover and the idea of working out of a former slaughterhouse still makes us laugh. We have amazing volunteers and one part-time employee.
But, we are still up against a lot of brick walls. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer deaths and predicted to be the second by 2020. 73% of those diagnosed die within the first year. 92% do not live to see five years. Even with these statistics, the National Cancer Institute allocates just 1.8% of their budget to PC research. That’s only around $90 million dollars, which sounds like a lot. However, it takes $1 Billion dollars to see just one research all the way to the finish line to where it may become standard of care.
There are 1.5 million non-profit organizations in the US. That’s a lot of scrambling for donations and sponsorships. We are extremely fortunate to have our artists’ support already. However, to continue our work, we require more.
So, what does this little organization need? We need sponsors, volunteers and advocates. We need people like you, your stories and your connection to pancreatic cancer. We need you to be a monthly donor. We need money to continue to fly. As for the magic, we already have that; we’ve got Nikki.