Endowment in memory of former Keller Police Captain furthers pancreatic cancer research

Brenda Slovak

By Sharon Reynolds

Brenda Slovak devoted her life to public service in Keller, Texas. During the almost 30 years she served as a Captain at the Keller Police Department, she took great pride in the city and always tried to keep the citizens safe.

“Brenda really cared about people,” said her close friend, Beki Picus. “She was a member of the Greater Keller Chamber of Commerce and served on its Board of Directors, where she continuously strived to make the city a great place to live and work.”

In January 2015, Ms. Slovak’s life took a tragic turn when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She passed away at the age of 56 in July 2017. Ms. Picus created the Brenda J. Slovak Endowment for Pancreas Cancer Research at UT Southwestern through a personal gift. She raises money to support the Endowment through events where the Keller community rallies to celebrate their beloved friend. In addition, Ms. Picus has strengthened the impact of her gift by joining The Heritage Society and including UTSW in her will.

“Pancreatic cancer is one of the more deadly forms of cancer and the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. With her gift, Ms. Picus keeps Ms. Slovak’s legacy alive while supporting the development of innovative approaches to confront this fatal disease,” said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, President of UT Southwestern. “Philanthropy like Ms. Picus’ serves as a lifeline for research, and this Endowment will allow our physicians and scientists to make more rapid advances in pancreatic cancer prevention, detection, and treatment.”

Ms. Picus hopes that the fund will improve outcomes for cancer patients. As part of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, UT Southwestern’s multidisciplinary pancreatic cancer program attacks the disease from all angles, from proactive prevention strategies to cutting-edge treatments, with groundbreaking research into future therapies and, ultimately, a cure.

Brenda Slovak

“UT Southwestern was where people supported and cared for Brenda,” Ms. Picus said. “In 2015, genetic testing indicated that she had a rare disorder, Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS), which ran in her family and increased her risk of developing several types of cancer. Brenda was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, followed by pancreatic cancer in 2015. Her grandfather, sister, and two nieces had LFS as well, and they all died of various cancers.”

LFS is a mutation in the gene that helps the body protect itself from cancer. It‘s estimated that half of the people with LFS will develop cancer by age 30, and up to 90 percent will develop cancer by age 60. The exact prevalence of LFS is unknown. One U.S. registry of Li-Fraumeni syndrome patients suggests that about 400 people from 64 families have this disorder.

Dr. John Mansour, Chief of the Division of Surgical Oncology at UT Southwestern, believes leading-edge research in genetics and personalized treatments for patients will allow doctors to treat cancers differently in the future. Because genetic mutations can be passed down from one generation to another (as in LFS), identifying high-risk individuals is paramount for cancer prevention.

“The value of genetic testing is in its relationship to early detection and preventive surgery,” said Dr. Mansour, also Associate Professor of Surgery. “Our Pancreatic Cancer Prevention Program surveys people with increased inherited risk or precancerous cysts using MRI or endoscopy. Through this program, we can identify people who have lesions in their pancreas, and we are able to remove those lesions before the organ becomes cancerous.”

As part of the Program, Dr. Mansour and his colleagues have developed special MRI protocols designed to see lesions before they’d be identified on a traditional scan. Additionally, they are collecting blood and pancreas cyst fluid to examine for clues to help identify people at the earliest phases of cancer development.

Individualizing treatments for each patient is a broad goal for the Simmons Cancer Center.

“The strategy of using the genetic signature of a cancer helps identify which treatments will be most effective and which will be ineffective and therefore not worth subjecting patients to side effects,” he said. “This is enabled by our regular practice of collecting tumor samples from patients and reviewing how each tumor reacts to treatment.

”Ms. Slovak touched many people during her life. Born in Dallas, she served as a police officer for 37 years, working in law enforcement at North Lake College, Texas Woman’s University, and the Keller Police Department. She was the third woman to join Keller’s police force and served in every division in the Department, including bike patrol, mounted patrol, and SWAT. She also served as a Hostage Negotiator Commander and was selected by her peers to lead the North Tarrant Regional SWAT force.

Ms. Picus is grateful for the outpouring of support during her friend’s final days.

“Brenda was always positive, even in the face of cancer,” she said. “Her faith never wavered. She had many friends who were at her side. They’d laugh like teenagers! I knew that for a brief time, Brenda wasn’t in pain and was just enjoying the moment.”

Dr. Podolsky holds the Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, Jr., M.D. Distinguished Presidential Chair in Academic Administration, and the Doris and Bryan Wildenthal Distinguished Chair in Medical Science.

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