Lighting the Way

Patricia Wagner turns loss into action with a light box campaign advocating for the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.

 

Patricia Wagner with an SWCRF ad featuring Daniel Pollera's work "A Path to a Cure."

 

Patricia Wagner is a woman who gets things done. As General Manager of the heliport on Manhattan’s East Side, Patricia leads a team that transports some of the world’s most powerful people via helicopter to local airports and to their weekend retreats in the Hamptons. Many of the boldfaced names that pass by her office are aware that she is slowly recovering from a devastating dual loss. In late 2013, her first-born daughter Kristen died of ovarian cancer at the age of 29, and just eight weeks later, her husband of 33 years, Steven, passed away from pancreatic cancer.

Steven and Kristen Wagner

Patricia acknowledges that she’s in a dark place in her life but takes solace in the love and support of her daughter Alexandra, a nurse at the women’s cancer unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and her son Jack, who works in public relations. Her team at the heliport has also rallied around her like a second family. Despite this support, Patricia’s struggle with the injustice of having two of her loved ones taken from her by cancer is palpable. Her gentle blue eyes well up and her voice trails off to a whisper as she speaks of Kristen and Steven’s cancer experiences. However, Patricia’s steely resolve, a quality that makes her so good at her job, surfaces when she conveys her determination to strike back at cancer through advocacy for science.  To this end, she has donated to the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation (SWCRF) advertising space on light boxes in the lobby of the heliport, providing the Foundation visibility among her influential clientele.

“Patricia Wagner has formidable grace, courage and generosity and we are very thankful for her friendship and support for our researchers’ work through this campaign,” says Samuel Waxman, M.D., Founder and CEO of the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.

Cancer first touched Patricia’s life in the 1970s when her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and uterine cancer. At 18, Patricia accompanied her mother to her chemotherapy treatments. Sadly, the cancer spread to her mother’s colon and she passed away within a year. The experience made Patricia and her sisters highly vigilant about undergoing frequent screenings for cancer while they were growing up.

Patricia remembers raising with her husband a storybook family living the American Dream. Kristen, a bright and personable child, blossomed into a beautiful young woman who attended Hofstra University on a full honors scholarship.  Upon graduating she lived the fantasy of many young women across the country by moving to Manhattan, starting a career at the cosmetics firm Estee Lauder and falling in love with Carter, a young man who worked in the music industry.

Carter and Kristen

“She was just a city girl, enjoying her life, doing her thing,” Patricia says proudly. “She and Carter were perfect together. They were a beautiful union of two young, exciting people.”

In the summer of 2012, a dark cloud emerged over Kristen’s seemingly perfect life when she noticed clotting in her menstrual flow. After her physician attributed the clotting to a recent change in her birth control prescription, Patricia urged her to get a second opinion. Doctors at NYU Langone Medical Center referred her to a specialist for an exam that detected a tumor on one of her ovaries. A subsequent lacroscopic operation at NYU in October revealed that Kristen had Stage 2C ovarian cancer. At the suggestion of her doctor, she had her eggs harvested, which was an expensive and stressful experience. Kristen, however, was determined to take control of her cancer care, which included chemotherapy.

“She was very much in charge of her regimen,” says Patricia. “When she did something, she did it thoroughly. I called her the Master of Everything.”

Just before Labor Day of 2013, Kristen spiked a fever and shortly thereafter complained to her doctors of discomfort in her stomach, which was distended. A subsequent scan confirmed the unthinkable: her cancer had recurred. “This poor thing couldn’t get a break. The cancer kept coming back,” Patricia says, her voice cracking. “Kristen didn’t even flinch. She never complained.”

Kristen with her siblings Jack and Alexandra

Kristen’s deterioration accelerated throughout the fall. Although she was scheduled to undergo a second round of chemotherapy, she never accumulated enough red blood cells to enable her to withstand the treatment. One terrible night, she experienced a rupture in the lining of her intestine, one of the common side effects of chemotherapy, and was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance.

Kristen was transferred to Columbia Presbyterian where Carter arranged for her to have a private room and Patricia never left her side. In October, Steven was experiencing excruciating back pain and a perceptive Kristen – ever the rock of the family – urged him to undergo testing from her hospital bed. The results were another shocking blow to the family. Steven had stenosis, a condition in which the roots in the spinal nerves are compressed, and pancreatic cancer in his lungs.

Kristen returned home for palliative care on November 2.  Her cancer journey ended on November 5, her father’s birthday.

“There’s nothing harder than holding your child when she takes her last breath,” Patricia says. “You bring that child into the world and see their first breath and you never imagine that you’ll live to see them take their last one. You want to scream. You want everyone to stop and make it right.”

The Wagners barely had time to process the loss of Kristen when they had to help Steven prepare for delicate spinal surgery. He was hospitalized at Memorial Sloan Kettering where he was informed that his kidneys were failing and his cancer was terminal. He passed away on January 28, 2014 at the age of 59.

Early this year, Patricia was introduced to the Waxman Foundation by her high-school friend Daniel Pollera, a Hamptons-based artist who created a painting that will benefit the SWCRF. Pollera’s work, A Path to a Cure, is featured prominently in the SWCRF campaign and is Patricia’s favorite ad for many reasons. The image, depicting a serene beach in Montauk – the site of many gatherings between the Wagner and Pollera families – reminds her of Kristen and Steven’s love of the beach. Patricia is touched that her family’s story contributed to Pollera’s latest work and that it symbolizes the quest for a cancer cure that she has committed to supporting in the aftermath of her ordeal.

“This tragedy has to have a good ending,” she says. “It has to end with a cure and I have Kristen and Steven’s spirits to push me.”