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Kelly’s Heroes: Bringing Hope and Clinical Trials to Patients Fighting Pancreatic Cancer

Kelly’s Heroes Board member Bill Habib, Dung Le, M.D., Kerry Kelly, Holly Kemberling, B.S.N., M.A.

Steve Kelly believed in the power of clinical trials. “Someone is going be the breakthrough patient,” he told his family and friends when his world was rocked by a diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer.

Following the diagnosis, he made two key decisions. He chose to come to the Kimmel Cancer Center for treatment and opted to participate in two clinical trials of promising new therapies. The first was a five-drug combination and the second was a therapeutic pancreatic cancer vaccine aimed at getting his immune system to attack the cancer.

Although the research therapies extended his life, says his wife Kerry, he died from the cancer in 2015 at age 55.  Determined that Steve’s death from pancreatic cancer was not going to be the end of his story, his family and friends started Kelly’s Heroes, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, to “take care of Steve’s unfinished business,” says Kerry.

Steve, an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer was confident in the research at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.  If he was not the breakthrough patient, Steve believed it was just a matter of time before those breakthroughs would happen for another patient.

Kelly’s Heroes raises awareness and funds for pancreatic cancer clinical trials.  Contributions come through events inspired by Steve’s fun-loving spirit, Kerry says, including an annual golf tournament, St. Patrick’s Day party, running events, a Zumba- and yoga-thon, and more. Over the last five years, Kelly’s Heroes has supported the research of his oncologist Dr. Lei Zheng, leading cancer genetics expert, Dr. Bert Vogelstein, who was the first to map the genetic causes of pancreatic cancer, gastrointestinal cancer clinical researcher Dr. Dung Le, who developed and led the clinical trial of the five-drug combination Steve received. The combination initially worked, shrinking Steve’s tumors.

Steve Kelly
Steve Kelly

“What we learned from patients like Steve, made it possible for other patients to be doing well today,” says Dung Le, M.D., Bloomberg-Kimmel Professor of Cancer Immunotherapy.

Like so many patients, Steve was in great shape, a young and active husband and father when cancer changed everything.

“We were devastated,” says Kerry. “We were not familiar with pancreatic cancer and what we found online was grim.”

Standard treatment doesn’t provide long-term survival for many patients with pancreatic cancer. “Our goal is to bring hope to pancreatic cancer patients by making sure they have more treatment options,” says Kerry.

“The support we’ve had for Kelly’s Heroes is a testament to Steve and what he meant to people,” says Kerry. “He was a dedicated newsman and a wonderful, caring person.  Even in the face of cancer, Steve lived with a capital L.”