Westport family turns love of hiking into $50,000 for cancer research

Siblings Julianna Shmaruk, 21, and Ben Shmaruk, 23, have hiked and camped together, sometimes accompanied by their parents Dawn and Alan. Ben and Alan Shmaruk even scaled Mount Washington in New Hampshire when they were just 8 years old.

But in September 2019, Alan Shmaruk was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.

“It was just awful because pancreatic cancer has a pretty strong, bad reputation,” said Dawn Shmaruk. “We were devastated, but at the same time we gave it our all on the first day.”

Alan died in July but the siblings and Dawn Shmaruk said he had always been positive during treatments.

This month they donated $50,000 to the Norwalk Hospital Foundation, raised from a love of Alan and Ben Shmaruk’s: hiking.

In March 2021, the Shmaruk family founded PCT4PC – which means Pacific Crest Trail for Pancreatic Cancer – when Ben Shmaruk traveled 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada while raising money for early research into pancreatic cancer honoring Alan Shmaruk.

The money will be given to Dr. Richard Frank, Oncologist/Haematologist and Director of Clinical Cancer Research at Norwalk Hospital, who was also Alan’s doctor, to support research into the early detection of pancreatic cancer.

“It’s wonderful and very special and meaningful because her husband and father was just such an amazing, wonderful man,” Frank said of the donation.

An exam room at Norwalk Hospital Whittingham Cancer Center is also named in his memory.

Frank said the money will be used for the hospital’s clinical trials to determine early detection of pancreatic cancer, such as MRI or blood tests.

He said Alan died of advanced pancreatic cancer, which is the typical situation for patients.

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer is difficult to find in its early stages.

“The pancreas is located deep in the body, so early-stage tumors cannot be seen or felt by health care providers during routine physical exams,” according to the American Cancer Society. “People don’t usually have symptoms until the cancer has gotten very large or has already spread to other organs.”

Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was a longtime dream of Ben Shmaruk.

“It was the best experience of my life,” he said.

His father even surprised him in Yosemite National Park while hiking the trail.

“Yes, there were difficult parts, but nothing that makes me say, ‘Wow, I wouldn’t do it again,'” he said.

Difficulties he faced included an ankle injury and a late-season storm in the Sierra Nevada with about a foot of snow in May, although he was able to extricate himself from it.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about covering the distance and having fun,” said Ben Shmaruk.

It took four and a half months to complete everything on my own, Dawn Shmaruk said.

“Sometimes it was so cold in his tent that his water froze,” she said.

On the other hand, one day the temperature reached 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and he even hiked 60 kilometers in one day once, added Dawn Shmaruk.

During her stay, Julianna Shmaruk was responsible for managing PCT4PC’s social media accounts, specifically Instagram and Facebook. She said she would post updates from Ben Shmaruk on the trail and even create fundraisers to raise money.

“By the time we hit $10,000, Ben had to hike a mile with his underwear over his pants, so he sent me a video of him doing it,” said Julianna Shmaruk.

Julianna Shmaruk said Instagram was a great way to reach younger generations, while Facebook helped connect older demographics.

She said they knew how passionate her father had been about the trek and the cause ever since he started the organization with them.

“I think doing something that makes a difference that’s inspired by him is really special for us because it honors him and memorializes him,” said Julianna Shmaruk.

Dawn Shmaruk agreed, saying Alan was proud and “so, so happy” when the family presented the check.

“We are very pleased to have the support of Dr. Frank’s research,” she said. “He was a great, fantastic doctor for Alan and for many others.”

Although it’s unclear what the next step is, Ben Shmaruk said they plan to continue fundraising in the future.

“We’re doing something good and hopefully it’ll help with early detection in the future,” he said. “It feels pretty good to know that the money is being used for something that has really affected us.”

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