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Gift spotlights a rare and deadly cancer

Betti Boers Maloney cherished time with her family, especially her three grandchildren. (Photo courtesy of Tom Maloney) No one was more stunned than Tom Maloney when his wife was diagnosed with appendix cancer nearly three years ago. Betti Boers Maloney had always been fit, active, and health-conscious. At 60, after raising four children (a blended family, formed when the couple married in 1984) and working as the office manager for her husband’s medical device materials business, she looked like the picture of health. She tended a garden, decorated her home, and read everything she could on nutrition and fitness.

But a few days after Christmas in 2010, she felt an intense pain in her abdominal area that sent her to the doctor. A CT scan found a mass, and a few weeks later doctors at the University of Minnesota scheduled her for surgery to address what they assumed was colon cancer.

That diagnosis quickly changed, however: Betti Boers Maloney had appendix cancer — a rare cancer that, in this case, was particularly virulent and aggressive. “She was a very strong-willed person, and she was bound and determined to do what she would have to do to survive this thing,” Tom Maloney recalls. But nothing seemed capable of stopping the cancer. On September 2, 2011 — just nine months after her initial complaint of abdominal pain — Betti Boers Maloney passed away.

Despite his grief, Tom Maloney was impressed with the care his wife received from U of M professionals, including Todd Tuttle, M.D., chief of surgical oncology. “Todd always made us both feel very good. Our best days were days when we could get to the University and [he would] have an explanation for this or that.”

But answers weren’t always readily available. Appendix cancer affects fewer than 1,000 Americans every year. It’s often misdiagnosed as ovarian or colon cancer. What’s more, while treatments exist, little is known about its causes.

“There simply hasn’t been much research on the risk factors for appendix cancer — clues that might lead to earlier diagnosis,” Tuttle says.

So when Maloney told Tuttle that he wanted to make a gift that might help other families avoid the pain and agony that he and his wife had endured, Tuttle suggested supporting research into the causes of appendix cancer. Maloney agreed, establishing the Betti Boers Maloney Appendix Cancer Research Fund.

Wasting no time, Tuttle joined forces with fellow Masonic Cancer Center member Beth Virnig, Ph.D., associate dean for research at the School of Public Health, to launch research into the roots of this little-understood disease.

“The U is using funds to ask probing questions and analyze existing data,” says Maloney. “Is there some pattern to cases? Is there some reason why appendix cancer seems to be on the rise? Initially, I wanted to find a cure, but now I’ve become more realistic. I’m more interested in what causes the cancer to begin with,” he says.

“It’s sometimes a process, rather than a quick answer,” Virnig concurs. “Now we have more questions, the kind of questions that we didn’t even know we’d be asking until this research was done. What Tom really gave us was the time to play detective and to uncover the data that will lead to answers.”

By Joel Hoekstra

To learn more about appendix cancer research at the Masonic Cancer Center, contact Kathy Beenen at kbeenen@umn.edu or 612-625-6495. To make a gift, visit www.giving.umn.edu/giveto/betti.

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