Group takes aim at travel expenses for patients, families
Staci Pepitone was from Ohio, but during the last years of her life, she lived in Baton Rouge, working for LSU and quickly becoming a Tiger fan.
Those who knew her say that her zeal for life was inspirational. Even while struggling with esophageal cancer, Pepitone had a vision for the future — to do something to help people who need to travel away from home for cancer treatment.
“I just promised her I would do the work we had intended to do,” said her mother, Brenda Pepitone, who lost Staci to cancer in the spring of 2010.
Geaux Past Cancer was the name of Staci’s blog, and it’s become the name of a new organization founded to raise funds to help people who need to travel to receive treatment.
The organization will also support awareness and research for cancer of the esophagus.
Its first major fundraiser, Geaux the Extra Mile, a run/walk, will be held Saturday, beginning with registration at 8 a.m. at the LSU Old Front Nine, at the corner of Nicholson Drive and Nicholson Drive Exchange.
The Geaux Past Cancer, the Staci A. Pepitone Fund is a fund of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. It’s also working through the support programs offered by the Mary Bird Perkins-Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center.
“It’s a group with a real sense of purpose, founded on a real person’s experience,” said Pam Wall, director of the grants program for the cancer center.
Staci Pepitone, who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Wright State University in Fairborn, Ohio, joined LSU in 1998, working initially in the Student Life department.
Before she passed away at age 44, Pepitone was assistant to the vice chancellor of Finance and Administrative Services, according to the website, http://www.geauxpastcancer.org.
She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in July 2007 and was originally treated at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City “after she learned that unusual or rarely diagnosed cancers had the best chance of remission with treatment at a large cancer center ...,” according to the Geaux Past Cancer website.
Staci and her mother, a retired English teacher, who eventually moved from Dayton, Ohio, to Baton Rouge to help Staci, her only child, and who now lives here, found firsthand the difficulties facing those who seek treatment for their cancer away from home.
“We knew well what expenses could do to a family,” Brenda Pepitone said.
Staci Pepitone traveled to New York City from Baton Rouge eight times for chemotherapy. Brenda Pepitone would fly from her own home in Dayton, Ohio, to be with her daughter in New York.
“We knew nothing at all about New York City,” Brenda Pepitone said.
She and her daughter found a hotel to stay at, but it was expensive and perhaps wasn’t the best plan, she said.
“We were also in shock from the diagnosis,” Pepitone said.
They were able to draw on their savings, and Brenda Pepitone was prepared to sell her house in Ohio if need be, she said, to fund their stays in New York.
“You say you save for a rainy day, ‘and it’s raining,’” is what the two women realized, she said.
In October 2007, the mother and daughter moved to New York temporarily, when Staci Pepitone needed daily radiation over several weeks.
“We rented an apartment from a young man, who gave us a good rate” because of the medical situation, Brenda Pepitone said.
The rate was $100 per night, which “is good for New York,” she said.
Staci Pepitone was able to return to Baton Rouge for a while, but later returned to New York for surgery and at that time stayed in the Hope Lodge Jerome L. Greene Family Center, a facility of the American Cancer Society, which provides free lodging for those getting cancer treatment in Manhattan.
Hope Lodge features large communal kitchens on each floor, Pepitone said.
“A lot of people gathered there. We made a lot of good friends,” she said.
It was at Hope Lodge that Staci Pepitone met a young man from Pennsylvania, who had late-stage lung cancer and had to board a bus at 4:30 a.m. on his treatment days, to ride 10 hours to his treatment, then take the long bus ride back when it was time to return home to Pennsylvania.
Staci Pepitone’s idea for the Geaux Past Cancer organization, to help with travel costs, was formed then, her mother said.
Staci had hoped the cancer would become manageable and “she could do this when she felt better,” Brenda Pepitone said of their plans for the organization.
“Her goal when she was alive was to do something to help cancer patients get to treatment,” helping with expenses not covered by insurance, Brenda Pepitone said of her daughter.
“We would like to make that journey easier,” Pepitone said.
“You’re never going to know what’s going to happen when you’re in the cancer fight,” she said.
A physician may refer a patient to another cancer center that has a different test or a different procedure or for a second opinion, she said.
“They happen much more frequently than people may expect,” Pepitone said of referrals to treatment programs elsewhere.
And it doesn’t have to be to a place as far away as New York City to sometimes cause difficulties, she said.
In this area, people may be driving into Baton Rouge from outlying areas for cancer treatment.
“Sometimes, even here, just getting gas in the car” is hard, Pepitone said.
Such patients may also need a place to stay overnight to rest after treatment, before traveling home, she said.
“There are a number of people, I’m sure, who go through cancer by themselves,” Pepitone said.
Some people may have friends who can help them, but, if there’s no one, “We’ll try to be that friend,” she said.
“Nobody should have to go bankrupt to stay alive,” she said.
In 2008, Staci Pepitone, who continued to work at LSU through her illness, learned there was a recurrence of the cancer, and her physician said she could receive treatment in Baton Rouge.
“That’s what brought us to Mary Bird Perkins,” Pepitone said.
Last year, a “remembrance walk” was held at LSU, in memory of Staci, Pepitone said.
The Geaux the Extra Mile 5K/1-Mile Walk-Run will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at the LSU Old Front Nine.
The registration fee is $30; participation for children 12 and younger is free.
Representatives of the Mary Bird Perkins-OLOL Cancer Center will be on hand with sunscreen and information, and Walgreens will be providing free flu shots and blood pressure screening for those with an insurance card.