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'A lot to live and fight for'

Community rallies around cancer-stricken Lynbrook resident

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In her pitched battle against pancreatic cancer, Valerie Fellows is preparing to fly to Switzerland on Sunday for a new treatment that could extend her life, and the Lynbrook community is helping her fight.

“She’s strong and she’s a fighter,” said Jennifer Mudd, who has been a friend of Fellows for many years. “She said she’s not giving up, and she’s going to keep fighting until she can’t anymore.”

Mudd created a GoFundMe page on Valentine’s Day — which happened to be Fellow’s 56th birthday — to help offset her soaring medical bills and travel expenses. The community in which she has lived her whole life has backed her, helping her page generate nearly $36,000 of its goal of $50,000 in four days, and the total continued to climb at press time on Tuesday.

“Once the community gets involved like this,” Mudd said, “it’s a game changer.”

Fellows was born and raised in Lynbrook with two older sisters, Lisa and Donna. She and her husband, Mark, raised two sons, Zak, 24, and Jake, 21, in the village. Mark runs an Allstate insurance firm on Broadway. Before she became ill, Valerie worked at Sterling Pierce Co. Inc., a commercial printing company in East Rockaway, for many years.

Life changed for the Fellows family in January 2019, when Valerie’s cancer was diagnosed. She underwent many hours of chemotherapy, and was given a clean bill of health last September. A month later, however, doctors discovered that the cancer had returned and had begun to spread aggressively. Though she was initially diagnosed with Stage 1 pancreatic cancer, last fall doctors informed her that it had become Stage 4.

According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer accounts for about 3 percent of cancer diagnoses in the U.S., and about 7 percent of cancer deaths. Five-year survival rates are less than 9 percent.

Because pancreatic cancer resists traditional treatments, the Fellowses have searched the world for additional options. Through their research, they discovered a procedure called PIPAC, or pressurized intra peritoneal aerosol chemotherapy, which could add years to Valerie’s life. PIPAC is an innovative approach to delivering chemotherapy that has shown significant results and can extend a patient’s life by years, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved it for use here.

Originally discovered in Germany and France, PIPAC is performed in many European countries. During their exhaustive research, the Fellowses discovered a facility in Denmark where the procedure could be done, but with time of the essence, the waiting list was too long for Valerie. Determined to find a solution, the family contacted a team of doctors in Switzerland, which fast-tracked Fellows and agreed to perform the procedure. 

Her sister, Donna Viemeister, said it has been hard to see her struggle with the illness, but noted that she has been strong during her fight. Because they grew up in Lynbrook and now live around the corner from each other in the village with their families, Viemeister said she has been able to support Valerie and help her research doctors and treatments.

Viemeister said the outpouring of community support has overwhelmed her family. “For all the wishes, prayers and all the hope to help me save her and get her to the right spot, I have no words for everybody,” she said. “It’s just wonderful. If anything, I’m hoping to be able to pass all the knowledge that I’ve gained from this to help other people that don’t have somebody to help them in this fight with this horrible disease. It’s important to reach out when somebody needs help.”

The sisters will leave on a nine-hour flight for Switzerland, with a layover in London, on Sunday. Viemeister said she hopes her sister is strong enough to fly. They will be in Switzerland 10 days.

Viemeister added that Valerie must undergo the procedure three times, which will require three trips back and forth to Switzerland, thus creating the need for the GoFundMe page. Viemeister also said that a family friend donated his miles so they could make the first trip for free this time. They plan to meet the medical team on Feb. 26, and the first procedure is scheduled for Feb. 28. When they return to New York, Valerie’s team of physicians at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan will follow protocols after the PIPAC procedures until she returns overseas again.

Viemeister described Valerie as a young spirit who is her best friend. Over the years, she said, she has enjoyed traveling to Manhattan with her sister and spending summers at a beach club together in Atlantic Beach. She added that Valerie loves her family, friends and dogs, of which she has three — Ella, Henry and Romeo. She also enjoys exercising. 

Valerie is also finding it emotionally uplifting, Viemeister said, to read the messages that people leave for her on the GoFundMe page, some of them from close friends and family members, others from people from her distant past or strangers.

“Sometimes the words are even bigger than the money that they gave,” Viemeister said. “It just helps her to hear all that support come pouring in. I see it helping her spirit. It helps her fight. She’s got a lot to live for, and she knows it. She’s so overwhelmed and grateful. She knows she has a lot to live and fight for.”

To donate to the GoFundMe, visit bit.ly/2SYq0NX.