Wendy Jo Blakely Je t’aime Fund
A permanent fund for pancreatic cancer research at Van Andel Institute.
The Wendy Jo Blakely “Je t’aime” Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund was established to support pancreatic cancer research in honor of Wendy, who died from pancreatic cancer. Created by her husband, Rusty, it stands as a tribute to her lifelong commitment to healthcare and family. A nurse for more than 30 years, Wendy believed in supporting patients at their most critical moments, delivering quality care and compassion.
The ”Je t’aime” fund, named after Wendy’s dream to visit France, is a permanent fund in the Department of Cell Biology at the Institute.
Pancreatic cancer is an aggressive, tough-to-treat disease in which malignant cells develop in the pancreas, a small gland located near the stomach that is responsible for producing hormones and digestive fluids. Although the overall cancer death rate in the U.S. has dropped 27 percent in the last 25 years, pancreatic cancers continue to have a low survival rate — only about 8.5 percent of people with pancreatic cancer survive past five years. Pancreatic cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in the U.S.
Pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose because it often doesn’t have obvious early symptoms (and those that it does have can have other, benign causes). By the time it is found, cancer cells may have spread throughout the organ or to other parts of the body — a process called metastasis — further complicating an already challenging treatment process and leading to poorer outcomes. Currently, there are no routine screening tests for the disease.
The more we know about pancreatic cancer, the better equipped we are to finds ways to catch it and treat it earlier, which could dramatically improve survival. Research, such as the work underway at Van Andel Institute, is moving us toward new strategies to give hope and more healthy years to people with pancreatic cancer.
“If I can save one life, then all this suffering is worth it,” Wendy Jo Blakely said when she decided to donate her body to science. Her husband, Rusty, was not surprised by the decision. They had been married for 34 years, and every day Wendy demonstrated courage and strength.
She did so at work through three decades of supporting patients through challenging times. Her determined spirit was obvious when she trained for marathons, pushing her body to the limit. Most of all, she demonstrated her strength following a devastating diagnosis in 2018: five lesions in her pancreas, and some in her liver. It was stage four pancreatic cancer.
Although Wendy started chemotherapy right away, it never felt right to her. “She was ready to move past cancer, but the chemo was just too much,” Rusty said. The couple sought second opinions and alternative treatment, but Wendy wanted to live her life her way: If she only had a few months left, the days would be filled with sailboat rides with their children, Owen and Olivia, and bike rides alongside her life partner.
Wendy and Rusty spent three months enjoying every minute they had together. They danced in the kitchen after work, rode their bikes and visited family. She wanted to enjoy her time, and she truly did.
“Wendy never complained. She made the best of every day and every minute she had left,” Rusty said. “She was always smiling, always laughing, and those are the images we have of her in our minds.”
Wendy died in May 2018, shortly before a planned trip to France. In the midst of loss, Rusty knew he wanted to grow Wendy’s legacy. While she had elected to leave her body to science, he wanted to do more. The result was the “Je t’aime” Pancreatic Cancer Fund, aptly named with the words “I love you” in French. The fund resides at Van Andel Institute.
“Our love got cut short, but some people live their whole lives without experiencing what we did,” Rusty said. “This is a way to stay positive, to keep her memory strong, and to hopefully help someone in the future.”