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Published June 15, 2013, 11:40 PM

Bittersweet Father's Day: Women who lost their dads to pancreatic cancer recall their impact

FARGO – Last summer, Angela Boser’s son Daniel was born shortly after her father’s funeral. “It was bittersweet because I know my dad really wanted to meet the baby,” the Fargo woman says.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

If you go

The Fargo-Moorhead Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Group meets at 7 p.m. the second Thursday of the month at the downtown Fargo Atomic Coffee. For more information, search “Fargo-Moorhead Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Group” on Facebook or email fmpancreaticcancerawareness@gmail.com.

FARGO – Last summer, Angela Boser’s son Daniel was born shortly after her father’s funeral.

“It was bittersweet because I know my dad really wanted to meet the baby,” the Fargo woman says.

The newest member of the family postponed Angela’s grieving process after Michael Olson’s painful cancer journey came to an end.

“There are so many ups and downs,” she says. “I mean, there are times when you think they’re not going to make it another couple days, then they rebound and you think, ‘Oh, they’re going to be OK.’ ”

A couple years earlier, a phone call on John Coler’s birthday sent his 26-year-old daughter, Whitney, down a similar path.

“The doctors said with a good diagnosis, he could have three to six months to live,” the Fargo woman says.

Angela and Whitney both lost their fathers to pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest but most underfunded types of cancer.

“It’s very aggressive,” Angela says. “And because the symptoms are so vague and can often be attributed to other things, by the time it’s actually diagnosed, in the majority of cases, it has metastasized, so it’s moved to other organs and it’s too late.”

The only reason the Colers found out John had pancreatic cancer is because he was in and out of the hospital with liver problems.

“I didn’t suspect a thing,” Whitney says.

According to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, it’s the only type with a five-year relative survival rate in the single digits.

“There’s no early diagnostic tool like there is for breast cancer or colon cancer,” Angela says.

This winter, the Fargo women helped form the Fargo-Moorhead Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Group, which aims to give a voice to those the disease claims.

“At the time they’re diagnosed, they’re so sick that they’re just fighting to live,” Angela says. “They can’t fight for themselves.”

She stresses that it’s an action group, not a support group.

“We’re really trying to take something that was many times personally devastating and difficult and turn it into something positive and impactful in the community,” she says.

Every year since her dad died, Whitney and her family have participated in the PanCAN’s annual bike ride in Minneapolis.

Last year, their team raised more than $4,000 to contribute to PanCAN’s efforts.

“It’s great to go to the Twin Cities to do that ride and to raise money, but to do something local where we are and where my dad was sick was something that was always really important to us,” she says.


For both families, life quickly changed after receiving the diagnoses.

“You have to take time to process the information. But you know that time is not on your side,” Angela says.

Angela and Whitney, along with their mothers and sisters, made the best decisions they could with the information they had to make the most of the time they had.

“One of the blessings in being presented with information like this is that you have an opportunity to do things and say things that you wouldn’t typically do,” Angela says.

Michael, who turned 70 12 days before he died, was already retired, but John, who was 49 at the time, quit immediately.

The youth director for Fargo’s Hope Lutheran Church for 19 years, John was known for his ability to connect with kids through faith.

“I remember at his memorial, there was one guy in particular that stood up and said, ‘I would be in jail if it weren’t for John Coler. He saved my life and showed me how to live a better life,’ ” Whitney says.

Michael taught science at Fargo’s Agassiz Middle School for the majority of his career.

The “man of many hobbies” enjoyed passing on his skills to his kids and grandkids.

On his last Thanksgiving, he dug out the rockets he kept in his garage and fired them off with his family.

“Honestly, without this diagnosis, we would have never flown rockets, he would have never shared his information on how to reload (guns), we wouldn’t have taken some of those evenings that we had that he was feeling well to go down to the flying field and fly model airplanes with him,” Angela says.

On Fourth of July 2010, the Coler kids set off rockets of another kind for their dad.

“Fourth of July was always a really fun holiday for us. He loved fireworks, he loved bottle rockets – he could stand in the backyard by himself for hours just lighting off bottle rockets,” Whitney says.

That year, John watched Roman candles light the afternoon sky from his seventh-floor hospital room.


Angela and Whitney have mixed feelings about today’s holiday honoring fathers.

“Father’s Day is partially a reminder of how lucky I was and partially a reminder that it’s over,” Whitney says.

Although Michael and John are no longer with their daughters, their influence remains.

As they grow older, Angela will tell her children more about the man who flew model airplanes and helped start the FM Skylarks club.

“He liked to do things with his hands. He was always creating something,” she says.

Hearing about her father’s impact in the community makes Whitney feel like she has a lot to live up to.

“In a way, he’s still a big part of my life and he’s still trying to make me a better person,” she says.

Whitney carries a permanent reminder on her left wrist – her dad’s signature. When he saw the tattoo, he gave it a kiss.

And John’s curly-haired dog watches out for her and comforts her every day.

“Ranger reminds me a lot of my dad, and it’s really nice to know that a piece of him is still here taking care of me,” she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590

Pancreatic cancer at a glance

- Risk factors for developing pancreatic cancer include family history of the disease, age, chronic or hereditary pancreatitis, smoking, obesity and recent-onset diabetes.

- Pancreatic cancer may cause only vague symptoms that could indicate many different conditions within the abdomen or gastrointestinal tract.

Symptoms include pain (usually abdominal or back pain), weight loss, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), loss of appetite, nausea, changes in stool, and diabetes.

- Treatment options for pancreatic cancer are limited. In adenocarcinoma, the most common type of pancreatic cancer, surgical removal of the tumor is possible in only approximately 15 percent of patients.

Source: Pancreatic Cancer Action Network