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When cancer gets personal

Martin and Jan Chorzempa in 2004 (Photo: Tim Rummelhoff)

New fund honors a wife lost to cancer, advances novel treatments

When Martin Chorzempa lost his wife, Jan, last summer — a month shy of their 50th wedding anniversary — he didn’t think twice about where to direct the memorial gifts. The Chorzempas had been supporting cancer research and education at the University of Minnesota since the 1980s.

In the beginning, they donated to cancer research because they believed it was the right thing to do. Then, in 1990, their interest in the disease became personal — and their contributions felt more crucial — as Jan Chorzempa was diagnosed with breast cancer. Several years later, she developed peritoneal cancer, a form of ovarian cancer that started in the lining of her abdomen.

Before Jan’s death in July 2010, the couple talked about doing something special for the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. “We had already made two major gifts, and we were interested in what advances were being made,” explains Martin Chorzempa.

To find out, they met with Douglas Yee, M.D., director of the Masonic Cancer Center, and Levi Downs, M.D., Jan’s surgeon. The Chorzempas and several family members heard about the latest research advances and how they were improving treatments. And, of course, Jan had experienced the University’s therapeutic side firsthand.

“Jan had excellent care while she was a patient there,” Chorzempa says. “We believed that through making gifts and furthering cancer research, some good advancements can be made to improve discovery and treatment. If you can help someone avoid having to go through chemo, that would be fantastic.”

Although she was being treated for advanced cancer, Jan planned a Caribbean cruise to celebrate the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary. Ten members of the family, including the couple’s children and grandchildren, gathered for the cruise. “Jan wasn’t feeling well, but she was there for breakfast and dinner,” Chorzempa says. “Everyone had a good time.”

The Chorzempa family

The very evening she returned from the cruise, Jan was back in the hospital, and she died a couple of weeks later. Chorzempa says the family takes comfort in their memories from the cruise.

To honor Jan, he made a commitment to raise $1 million to establish the Jan Chorzempa Cancer Research Fund, in part by encouraging family and friends to make donations, including memorial gifts, to the fund.

Jan left part of her IRA to the fund, and Chorzempa contributed distributions from his own IRA in 2010 and 2011 — something he plans to do every year. He also designated the fund as his IRA beneficiary to complete the $1 million goal. The money, he says, will build on Jan’s legacy by driving innovative cancer research.

“For many years, Marty Chorzempa and his late wife, Jan, have been incredibly generous supporters of the Masonic Cancer Center,” says Yee. “They’ve been a major reason we’ve been able to develop a robust program in experimental cancer therapeutics. With this new commitment, we will be able to improve new treatment strategies for women’s cancer, with a focus on gynecologic malignancies, including ovarian cancer. This fund will allow us to make further progress on several promising new strategies developed at the Masonic Cancer Center.”

Chorzempa says he’s grateful for the donations he’s already received from friends and family. “We’ve got a good start, but we have a ways to go. I feel confident that over time we’ll be able to reach the goal of $1 million.”

By Lee Engfer

To support the Jan Chorzempa Cancer Research Fund, contact Cathy Spicola at 612-625-5192 or, or visit

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