PanCan CEO Julie Fleshman (left) and Miss America Madison March (right).Share on Pinterest
PanCan CEO Julie Fleshman (left) and Miss America Madison March (right). Image Provided by PanCan
  • Miss America, Madison Marsh shares her passion for working in cancer research.
  • Marsh was just 17 years old when she lost her mom to pancreatic cancer.
  • From being an Air Force lieutenant, cancer researcher, and Miss America, Marsh spreads hope across the country.

Miss America Madison Marsh represents her crown well.

As an Air Force 2nd lieutenant, she is the first active-duty service member to win the title.

Moreover, Marsh is a cancer researcher and advocate for pancreatic cancer. In 2018, when she was 17 years old, her mother passed away from the disease just nine months after her diagnosis.

“[It] was obviously a big shock to our family because she was only 41 years old, wasn’t in any of the risk groups, we didn’t have any cancer history in our family, but she started to have things like weird unexplained back pain and abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, and so it had kept being written off as random stomach problems instead of raising the red flag for pancreatic cancer,” Marsh told Healthline.

Jaundice was the final symptom her mom, Whitney, experienced before receiving a diagnosis.

All the symptoms she experienced are common for pancreatic cancer, said Dr. Jaspreet S. Grewal, medical oncologist at Norton Cancer Institute.

Additional symptoms might include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal swelling related to fluid buildup, and, in the late stages of the disease, palpable lymph nodes above the clavicle or abdominal nodularity.

“Uncommonly, a pancreatic lesion may be found as an incidental finding on imaging studies done for other reasons,” Grewal told Healthline. “Research studies have also shown that new-onset diabetes [in] people over the age of 50 may be an early symptom of pancreas cancer.”

A few weeks after Marsh’s mom passed away, her family started the Whitney Marsh Foundation, which raises funds for research and awareness to improve early detection. Marsh co-founded and currently presides over the foundation.

Because her mom was an avid runner, the foundation hosts an annual run in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in her honor to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer.

“We give primarily back to our Kansans because we recognize that we don’t have a place like an MD Anderson or Johns Hopkins to treat our patients,” said Marsh.

She is grateful her family could afford treatment for her mom at MD Anderson.

“Almost no other patients have that ability, so we want to be able to build up these medical areas in Arkansas and bring better oncology research and physicians to our towns to ensure that everyone has the equal right to be treated,” Marsh said.

She pushed her passion further by pursuing a master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. Her graduate internship at Harvard Medical School involves working with experts from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on early cancer detection research.

While she studied physics at the Air Force Academy for four years, focusing on gamma-ray burst research, in her senior year, she decided her heart was somewhere else.

“I really wanted to dive fully into pancreatic cancer, so I had an incredible opportunity to take this physics background and apply it to pancreatic cancer,” said Marsh.

She delved into artificial intelligence research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School.

“We basically started this project trying to teach computers how to figure out the phase of contrast on CT scan and so that goes into all these really cool studies about how do we detect pancreatic cancer before it’s there, before the tumor’s visible, and so that led me to apply to the Harvard Kennedy School to get my Master in Public Policy,” Marsh explained.

Dr. Elliot Newman, chief of surgical oncology and pancreas and hepatobiliary surgery at Northwell Lenox Hill Hospital, said artificial intelligence advancements bring hope for the future of pancreatic cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“AI is being used to analyze imagining studies better, to analyze biopsies better. It’s being used in almost everything now to see more subtle things that maybe we have trouble picking up, so if someone develops the right algorithm for AI to look at cat scans or MRIs and they can pick up some subtle findings that maybe right now to the human eye isn’t so obvious, maybe they’ll be able to then pick up some things earlier,” he told Healthline. “But I think work needs to be done to prove that.”

Marsh is putting in the work by studying public policy and continuing medical research on the side.

“[We] want to make sure that someone who understands the medicine and understands the patient aspect is also the person that’s putting the policy in place so we can affect all patients properly and accurately, so everyone is getting the correct treatment and the correct possibilities for them to be able to continue on their mission of life,” she said.

However, she is taking the rest of the year off to commit to her Air Force and Miss America duties. Still, she finds a way to combine her passion for medical research while living out her responsibilities.

Marsh recently partnered with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), the leading pancreatic cancer nonprofit. In April, she helped kick off PanCAN’s largest national charity walk, PurpleStride, which took place in nearly 60 cities nationwide.

“PanCAN has always been somebody that I looked up to when we started the Whiteny Marsh Foundation … one of the ways I got involved with them is their advocacy,” said Marsh.

She admired PanCAN’s advocacy for bills that prioritize research funding.

“I wanted to be involved in that, so I started off with Arkansas Congressman Steve Womack and then kind of grew into working with PanCAN and trying to take some of their initiatives every single time I go to the Capitol and really putting my mom’s face in that story as a part of PanCAN because even though we’re separate organizations, we have the same mission to help patients,” she said.

Initiatives to support further research are needed, said Grewal. While some steps have been made to improve treatment options, he said supportive care around treatments has improved significantly, allowing people to have a reasonable quality of life and to spend quality time with their loved ones while receiving treatments.

“I would like to emphasize the need for further development of therapies in this disease state,” said Grewal. “To achieve the goal of finding treatment/curable options for patients with pancreas cancer, we encourage patients to enroll in clinical trials.”

Marsh’s dream of joining the Air Force began when she attended space camp in eighth grade.

“I really wanted to be an astronaut, so I started to talk to some astronauts, and I realized that the military was a very common background that everyone was in, and I found that the Air Force Academy was the best way to becoming a pilot, which was a part of this huge actual 30-year plan that I had created for myself,” she said.

About a year after entering the Air Force Academy, she began competing in pageants, and shortly after, she felt a pull toward cancer research.

“My dreams of being an astronaut have definitely changed,” said Marsh. “I see myself doing pancreatic cancer work for the rest of my life, and so it’s been a very beautiful change of my dream and kind of outgrowing and regrowing into new things.”

As she lives out her dream in hopes of helping others facing pancreatic cancer, she keeps her mom close to her heart.

“I really love the fact that I can look back now and know that my mom’s name and story have been shared nationally,” said Marsh.

While pancreatic cancer can be scary, she wants others to know that there are many people dedicating their lives to finding a cure and early detection.

“We are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were when my mom was diagnosed five years ago, and I think that speaks volumes to the type of strides we’re making across the entire pancreatic cancer community,” she said.