Grieving Husband Launches Foundation to Fight Pancreatic Cancer in Honor of His Late Wife

"We never could catch up. The cancer ran faster. You're under the gun from the moment you get the diagnosis," Bob Wright tells PEOPLE

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty

Bob Wright is a man on a mission.

On July 29 his wife of 49 years, Suzanne, died of pancreatic cancer.

What they learned about the lack of resources being devoted to the disease during the nine months she valiantly fought for her life was so shocking he knew he had to do something about it.

“It’s a horrible situation,” says Wright, 73, who co-founded Autism Speaks with Suzanne in February 2005 after their grandson was diagnosed with autism. “There’s a lack of energy. No prioritization. No sense of urgency. The one fact that just knocks you right out is..the mortality rate for pancreatic cancer is 93 percent. It hasn’t changed much in 40 years. There’s no cancer that has that situation.

“It’s the third leading cause of cancer deaths,” he says. “It just surpassed breast cancer.”

On Wednesday, he is officially launching The Suzanne Wright Foundation with a national campaign entitled “Code Purple.” Despite having the highest mortality rate of all major cancers, pancreatic cancer receives only 2 percent of federal cancer research funding, he says. He hopes to increase that figure through awareness.

” ‘Code Purple’ is a hospital emergency term used in situations where the hospital has encountered a situation where it cannot control itself — it has to rely on getting aid from other rescue organizations, hospitals…sort of like a three-alarm fire,” he says. “Everyone’s instructed to contact the hospital immediately to see if they can be helpeful.

“So this is Code Purple,” says Wright, former vice chairman of General Electric and chairman of NBC Universal. “We see an emergency here and we don’t see anybody attending to it. When you have a situation where people are dying like this, so steady without any stopping, every laboratory should be open on weekends. Everything should be done. There should be research going on on seven days a week. Researchers should be working with each other.”

It is a mission his late wife also supported, he says.

“She was saying to me, ‘You get on with your life. Don’t dwell on this,” he says. “But I really couldn’t and just before she died I told her I was going to go forward…I said, ‘I think there are things that have to get done here.’ You know what she said to me? She said, ‘Thank you.’ She was really grateful.”

Bob Wright - News
The Wright family

Another area they discovered was lacking is any type of early detection test or screening tools for the cancer. By the time doctors diagnosed Suzanne’s cancer, it had already spread to her liver and was stage IV, he says.

“That became my worst day ever,” he says.

But they continued to fight, trying chemotherapy, furiously researching to see what else was out there, even opting for experimental treatments toward the end — one he thought might have worked had they known about it sooner.

“The doctor thought it was done very well, but the train was just running out of control and she just started to slip very badly,” he says. “And from June 22 on to July 29 it was just one ride downhill. Eventually we stopped all chemo and stopped all treatment and just tried to keep her as comfortable as possible.

“Then we went into hospice the last two or three weeks,” he says. “She slipped away on a Friday afternoon, the 29th of July. It was about 4 o’clock and she just ran out of gas. It was peaceful.”

Brian Doben

Since then, he’s had to adjust to life on his own, but his new cause is helping him heal — as is Happy.

“I’ve never been alone in my life at any time so this is not something I was looking forward to,” he says. “So I try to be with my children and grandchildren as much as I can. My companion is Happy.

“It’s not been good,” he says. “It’s a terrible thing but I feel like I’m in this with her. She’d be sitting at this table with me…looking over the points, offering her input. The two of us would be completely at home on this project. So this is therapeutic in that regard.”

The urgency and the need for immediate action are helping as well, he says.

“They did everything they could for Suzanne, but we never could catch up,” he says. “The cancer ran faster. You’re under the gun from the moment you get the diagnosis.”

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