Purple Ribbons At The Lincoln Street Diner

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

There’s a basket filled with purple ribbons next to the cash register at the Lincoln Street Diner. Purple is the color associated with pancreatic cancer, the disease that took the life of Bunny O’Brien/Schassburger. Her son, Christopher O’Brien, owns the diner and he and his family want to make more people aware of this devastating disease.

Bunny died at the age of 63, about a year and a half after she was diagnosed, but her story is very much about living. She was a nurse practitioner and the head nurse at Ithaca Dialysis Center where she healed, comforted, and supported so many people dealing with their own serious illnesses. Her memorial service was packed with those whom she had touched both personally and professionally.

Pancreatic cancer doesn’t get much national attention because there aren’t many survivors. The statistics are as sobering as they get. Cancer survival rates are expressed as the proportion of people diagnosed with the disease that are alive five years later. With prostate cancer, the overall survival rate is 98 percent, breast cancer – 88 percent, colorectal cancer – 64 percent. With pancreatic cancer, the survival rate is just 5 percent, the single worst survival rate of any major cancer.

In 2008, there will be an estimated 37,680 new cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in the United States and 34,290 deaths, the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women.

One reason that pancreatic cancer is so deadly is because it is usually diagnosed at a late stage, when it’s already spread to other organs. There’s no early screening test like mammography for breast cancer or colonoscopy for colon cancer, and the initial symptoms of pancreatic cancer – abdominal discomfort, weight loss, etc. – are vague.

If diagnosed early, it’s still a bad cancer, but survival increases to about 20%. Not the best odds, but enough for realistic hope.

In one corner of Fall Creek, Christopher O’Brien and his family are increasing public awareness about the disease that afflicted Bunny. Sometimes, awareness isn’t about rallies or marches, but making one-to-one connections. When a person asks about the purple ribbons, they’ll be told about the disease and how it took a loved one at too young an age. And they may be directed to PanCAN, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (, for more information.

Bunny’s professional colleagues at the Tompkins/Cortland Chapter of the Nurse Practitioner Association of New York State are planning a golf tournament in her honor and to raise funds for the Bunny O’Brien/Schassburger Pancreatic Cancer Fund (PO Box 285, Freeville, NY 13068).

My own mother, Ella Riter, died of pancreatic cancer some 25 years ago, so the purple ribbon resonated with me. I know I’m not alone. One person – or one group of people working together in a diner – can make a difference in saving lives and honoring memories.




Click here to see all of Bob’s columns


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