Early Saturday morning, Khushbu Kheti was lying in bed, and, like many mornings since this child therapist’s shocking diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in May, it was hard physically and emotionally to get up.
But that morning of April 8, more than 100 friends and family members were gathering in New York City to walk or run in her honor.
“It definitely helped me get out of bed today,” Kheti, 28, says as she stood in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, surrounded by scores of supporters before the start of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s 5K PurpleStride New York City.
“It’s so overwhelming to have such a great support system,” Kheti, of Morris Plains, New Jersey, tells PEOPLE. “It definitely gives me hope — that’s half the battle.”
More than 2,000 people ran or walked the event, which has so far raised more than $623,000 for pancreatic cancer research and clinical trials. Almost everyone wore purple. There were purple wigs and T-shirts, tutus, running tights, and sneakers. The emcee was Katrina Edorsson, a two-time cast member from CBS’s “Survivor.” Last year she lost her father after his three-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 59 years old.
The loss is still difficult for her to talk about, she tells PEOPLE.
“Me and my dad had a loving relationship,” says Edorsson, 27, who sells time shares in Orlando. “He lived for my sister and me. He had a wonderful wife, my step mom, they were married 20 years.”
When he was diagnosed, “I was shocked, when you hear about pancreatic cancer you don’t see any other option except death,” she says . “I was angry, I couldn’t believe it. I spent the next month in denial.”
There were no symptoms, she says.
“He went to the hospital with a blood clot and came out a few hours later with stage 4 pancreatic cancer,’ ” she says. “When people ask me, ‘Why are you walking?’ I say, ‘Why aren’t you?’ All we’re doing for this event is to try to raise awareness.”
“I’m friends with Kat and found out her dad passed away from pancreatic cancer,” she says. “It’s not something you hear about as much. It’s crazy that pancreatic cancer kills more people than breast cancer. I just wanted to be here to support her and raise awareness.”
Pancreatic cancer has an extremely low five-year survival rate of just 9 percent and is usually diagnosed after it has spread, according to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network . The group hopes to double the survival rate by 2020 with its tremendous push for more clinical trials and the creation of early detection methods, which now don’t exist. It also provides free help for patients and caregivers to find the best specialists trained in treating pancreatic cancer.
“There isn’t an early detection method and we need to educate the public on the symptoms, which can be vague and include lower back pain, weight loss, nausea and jaundice,” Julie Fleshman, CEO of PanCAN , tells PEOPLE. “The symptom that usually catches a doctor’s attention is jaundice.
“People don’t think ‘This is pancreatic cancer,’ ” says Fleshman, whose father died of the cancer at age 52, four months after he was diagnosed. “If people are experiencing a couple of these things at the same time, they need to pay attention.”
Barry Reiter, 58, of Jericho, New York, is now in remission. He credits his survival to a pre-surgical MRI for prostate cancer, when his doctor mistakenly ordered an abdominal MRI that uncovered early stage pancreatic cancer, diagnosed July 1, 2015.
“I was symptom free when they discovered pancreatic cancer,” says Reiter. “I was extremely lucky. My doctors say it was because I was diagnosed early is why I survived.”
Survivor Lupe Romero, 55, is now battling her third recurrence after her first diagnosis in February 2012. A California resident, she was in Brooklyn to do the walk while visiting one of her sons and deciding on treatment options.
When first diagnosed five years ago at her local hospital, Romero’s doctor said she had three to six months to live.
But thanks to another physician’s urging, she saw specialists in pancreatic cancer at the Ronald Regan U.C.L.A. Medical Center
“If I had not listened to that radiologist, I wouldn’t even be here,” says Romero, who has undergone a complex surgery called a Whipple procedure to remove pancreas tumors, and rounds of chemotherapy. “One thing I learned is that smaller hospitals are not educated when it comes to pancreatic cancer.”
Romero has also taken up skydiving. On April 29 she’s jumping for her sixth time to celebrate being a five-year survivor.
Kheti credits her survival to the urging of an uncle to have a follow-up visit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City after doctors at another hospital dismissed a mass found on her pancreas as non-cancerous.
“They said I didn’t fit the criteria for the kind of cancer it could be,” says Kheti, whose cancer has been unresponsive to chemotherapy and spread to her liver. She is next going to Houston’s MD Anderson for another type of chemo.
Saturday, Kheti walked half the race, and finished in a wheelchair, her legs weakened from her battle. But she remains hopeful. Says Kheti: “We’ll get ’em.”