It took exactly six months for Juan Antonio Gutierrez to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and then succumb to the notoriously swift and devastating disease.
For his family, the loss of Gutierrez, or "Papi" to his children, was tremendous. His daughter-in-law Niria Leyva-Gutierrez, a Montclair resident, remembers Gutierrez as being “the life of the party; he was the type of person that could just walk into a room and command it.”
In addition to his wife, children and grandchildren, Gutierrez was beloved by his co-workers at IKEA, a job he took because retirement, quite simply, bored him. “He loved working at IKEA,” says his daughter Genelle Gutierrez-Navarro, a Bloomfield resident. “He loved the diversity of his co-workers and building furniture; he was really happy there.”
It was, in fact, Gutierrez’s duty manager at IKEA who called Gutierrez-Navarro back in 2005, worried that her father “looked terrible” and was in no shape to work.
“It then all happened so fast,” she explains. “He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctor basically told us to prepare for the fact that he was going to die.”
Indeed, the family lost Gutierrez on March 19, 2006, six months to the day after he was diagnosed.
They took solace in their extended group of family and friends, but remained deeply affected by the rapid nature of Gutierrez’s illness, and of the emotional enormity of caring for and quickly losing someone to pancreatic cancer.
Last October, Gutierrez-Navarro happened upon a link online for the Purple Stride, a 5K for Pancreatic Cancer, and was immediately intrigued. “I didn’t know what it was or where it was, but I knew I was going to do it,” she says.
And she did. Gutierrez-Navarro, who admits she never asks for things via social media, called out to Facebook friends to sponsor the walk. “I thought maybe I would get $100 or $200, but I ended up getting $2000, all in a few days before the race," she says.
The Purple Stride, now in its second year, is organized by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, PANCAN for short. PANCAN offers a wealth of information and resources for anyone affected by pancreatic cancer.
Gutierrez-Navarro, a social worker by profession, finds PANCAN indispensible. “It’s not just for the research funding which is, of course, so important, but also for the network of support and resources it offers, particularly for caregivers," she says.
The Gutierrez clan is set to do the Purple Stride again this Sunday November 6, in Parsippany. Family, including her mother Maria Gutierrez, brother John Gutierrez, and sister-in-law Leyva-Gutierrez, will join Gutierrez-Navarro in the 5K.
The family will be walking as a team under the name “El Jefe,” a nod to Gutierrez who often used the moniker to sign birthday cards.
If you would like to participate in the Purple Stride, you can still register up until Friday, November 4. You can also support Team El Jefe by making a donation here; where it prompts you to “Enter Participant’s Name,” just put in Genelle Gutierrez, and team “El Jefe” will show up.
To Gutierrez-Navarro, the Purple Stride is special, not only to honor loved ones and survivors, but for the families and caregivers to come together in support. “People will just come up to you, put a hand on your shoulder, and you know they are saying ‘I get it, I get what you are going through, what you’ve been through'," she explains.