By Sarah Kuper
Whether they root for the Tigers or the Tide, Over the Mountain residents can agree that the Iron Bowl is a highlight of the football season.
The Birmingham-based Robert E. Reed Gastrointestinal Oncology Research Foundation uses the annual match up to pit fan against fan and raise money during the annual Finish the Fight event.
Hannon Davidson, executive director of the foundation, said the event is about raising funds, but it also aims to educate.
“The foundation touches wider GI cancer, not just stomach or pancreatic. If you have one of these cancers, it will likely head to the other areas. Many people don’t know that,” she said.
That’s why in 2002, pancreatic cancer patient Robert E. Reed and UAB Hospital chief of medical staff and surgical oncologist Dr. Martin Heslin founded the interdisciplinary research foundation.
When Reed was diagnosed, doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York told him he didn’t have much time left, but a personal connection led Reed to Heslin, where a new treatment plan allowed him to have more quality time with his family before his death in 2002.
“Some patients are uniquely interesting, perceptive and kind. Robert Reed was one of those people. I knew him at the end of his life and he worked to put time and money toward starting the foundation,” Heslin said.
According to Heslin, Reed saw the potential in Birmingham and particularly in UAB and Heslin’s lab to make great strides searching for a cure and increasing quality of life for those living with GI cancer.
The mission of the foundation is to create a world class center for patient education and research at UAB Hospital. The foundation accomplishes its goals by hosting the Living with Cancer Symposium, an event featuring top researchers in cancer survivability, and an educational website, as well as funding cancer research through Heslin’s lab and other UAB research labs.
Since Reed’s death, Heslin has served the foundation in many capacities, but his chief focus is research.
Currently, Heslin and his lab team are collaborating with other labs at UAB and across the country to investigate the effects of exercise and nutrition on GI cancer.
Davidson, who knew Reed through her parents, said she understands why Reed would invest in the future of GI cancer research by way of Heslin.
“Marty is an incredibly amazing man aside from being a doctor,” Davidson said. “He goes above and beyond for a patient and their family. He holds their hands and tells them not to be nervous.”
While Heslin dedicates time to research, he is still a busy surgeon specializing in cancer-related procedures.
Because GI cancer can be especially aggressive, Heslin said he often has to have difficult conversations about death.
“People ask me, ‘Am I going to die?’ The answer is yes. We all die someday. So we are not going to figure out if you are going to die, but we are going to figure out what to do between now and then. What can cure you? What can make you live longer? What can make you live better?” Heslin said.
It is answering these questions that drives his passion for research and patient care.
While finding a cure is the ultimate goal, Heslin said he at least wants to make GI cancer just another chronic disease of old age.
Davidson said this year’s Finish the Fight event will give guests a more personal perspective on GI cancers through a campaign called Faces of GI Cancer.
The foundation profiled a handful of patients whose journeys highlight the different ways GI cancer affects lives.
Their stories will be shared at the event.
Heslin said money raised at this event is critical to the mission of the Robert E. Reed Foundation.
“It used to be you could get grants from the NIH after a few years of research. Now it can take seven or more years. What fills the gap for our work is philanthropy from the Robert Reed Foundation.”
Plus, he said, the event is fun and different than other charity drives in the area.
“It isn’t another golf tournament or fun run. It is unique to the South and to Birmingham. We want it to be fun and when it stops being fun we won’t do it anymore.”
So far, the Robert E. Reed Foundation has given more than $1.5 million dollars to UAB.
Finish the Fight is Nov. 17 and will have a casino theme. There will be celebrity dealers, a silent and live auction plus fireworks, weather permitting.
Individual tickets are $100.
For more information on the event and the Robert E. Reed Foundation, visit reedgifoundation.com.
The Faces of GI Cancer
Joining the Fight
The Birmingham-based Robert E. Reed Gastrointestinal Oncology Research Foundation profiled a handful of patients whose journeys highlight the different ways GI cancer affects lives. Their stories will be shared at the organizations annual Finish the Fight event on Nov. 17.
Sue Clements – Inverness
Clements is a five-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. She is now the leader of the local chapter of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, supporting others and creating hope for
those affected by pancreatic cancer.
Richard Horn – Vestavia Hills
Horn was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2014. After acting quickly with treatment and operations, he now plays golf several times a week and spends time with his grandchildren.
Nancy Pearson – Vestavia Hills
Pearson is a nine-year survivor of rectal cancer. A semi-retired school teacher, she works with children who need extra care in
Wayne Miller – Mountain Brook
Miller was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer in 2012. He is fighting the disease with trial studies and treatments. He continues to run his family business and spends time with his wife and two children.
Nanci Stewart – Tuscaloosa
Stomach, Colorectal and Gallbladder Cancer
Stewart has beaten cancer not once, not twice, but three times. Diagnosed with stomach cancer more than 25 years ago, she was diagnosed again with colorectal cancer and gallbladder cancer. Through surgery and treatment, she is now cancer free and enjoys attending Alabama football games and spending time with her grandchild.