The power of purple

Making a difference: Amanda Toska (second from right) smiles with classmates at Baldi Middle School. She recently organized a Power of Purple day at her school, which included a student dress-down day, candy and wristband sales. The Toska family later presented a check for $1,500 to Fox Chase Cancer Center. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

Jim Toska’s favorite color had always been purple.

Maybe it was because he was such a big Minnesota Vikings fan, despite his Northeast Philadelphia roots. Maybe, according to his wife Felicia, it was because he loved being the center of attention. And purple certainly commands attention.

But Toska’s family never could have predicted how significant the color purple would become for them last September when the Fox Chase Cancer Center employee was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Purple ribbons are a universally recognized symbol for pancreatic cancer awareness.

Jim Toska died on Oct. 7, just three weeks after his diagnosis and one month shy of his 51st birthday. Last month, Jim and Felicia’s daughter Amanda organized a Power of Purple day at her school, C.C.A. Baldi Middle School in Bustleton, to raise money for researching the disease. Activities included a student dress-down day on May 13, along with candy and wristband sales. Baldi’s Home and School Association chipped in, as did local businesses including the 7-Eleven at Welsh Road and Old Bustleton Avenue, as well as Salon Norman Dee. Amanda and her family later presented a check for $1,500 to Fox Chase Cancer Center, although additional donations continue to arrive mostly due to the campaign’s social media presence.

Amanda, who is in sixth grade, and Baldi plan to make Power of Purple an annual event at the school every Nov. 13 to commemorate World Pancreatic Cancer Day.

“Amanda, when she has a purpose, she puts all her energy into it,” Felicia Toska said. “By doing this, I knew it would allow her to engage what happened without dwelling on the sadness. Jim would have loved this.”

Jim Toska’s story is a testament to life’s unpredictability and fragility. A Lawncrest native, he had three children from a prior relationship before he and Felicia married in October 2000. They had a child together, Amanda, now 11. Her half-siblings include Tammy, 29; Danny, 26; and Gabby, 19.

Thirty years ago, Fox Chase Cancer Center hired Jim as a housekeeper, but he had higher aspirations. He learned a trade and after 15 years became an information technology specialist there.

“He was brilliant with computers and they gave him a shot there,” said Felicia Toska, who works as a paralegal. “He had no resume at all, but they knew him. He was a very loyal, dedicated person. They were his family there.”

Jim Toska experienced few if any early symptoms of medical trouble. Then he got a stomach ache that he couldn’t seem to shake. Two weeks later, a specialist detected the cancer. It all seemed so sudden, Felicia Toska said. He was already at stage four, with the cancer spreading to other vital organs by the time of his diagnosis. Toska’s situation is not unique.

About one in five people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive the first year while about 6 percent survive five years, according to the American Cancer Society. This is largely due to the high frequency of late-stage diagnosis. Survival rates increase in cases where surgery can remove the malignancy.

Gene Upshaw — a NFL Hall of Fame lineman who led the Oakland Raiders over Jim Toska’s beloved Vikings in Super Bowl XI, and later the executive director of the NFL Players Association — died from pancreatic cancer in August 2008, four days after he first sought medical help for breathing problems.

Actor Patrick Swayze had just finished filming a television pilot in December 2007 when he first sought medical help for a burning sensation in his stomach. Three weeks later, doctors diagnosed him with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Swayze fought the disease for 21 months and died in September 2009.

About 53,000 Americans will be diagnosed with the disease this year, while about 42,000 will die, according to the Cancer Society.

“Early detection is very important in this type of cancer,” Felicia Toska said.

The students, staff and families at Baldi are learning those lessons and taking them to heart.

“The Home and School Association wanted to do something at the school level for a fundraiser and Felicia’s idea was ideal,” Andrea DeSimone, the Home and School president, said.

“Our school has been very supportive of fundraising efforts throughout the school year,” Principal Luke Hostetter said, citing Baldi’s support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. “The importance of this fundraiser really hit home with Amanda. Our students really love to come together as a community to rally around the cause.”

The school serves more than 1,300 students in grades six through eight. According to Home and School Treasurer Kristine Owens, the building is one big community bringing together graduates from Anne Frank Elementary in Bustleton, Comly Elementary in Somerton and Fox Chase Elementary.

“There are a lot of groups coming together in one school,” Owens said.

Felicia gives most of the credit for Power of Purple to Amanda, who also considers it her favorite color. The project was a labor of love. In keeping with the “PoP” theme, they sold ring pops around school. They also sold purple awareness wristbands in school and at Barnes and Noble. They made fliers to promote the dress down day, during which students can pay $1 so they don’t have to wear a uniform to school.

“It was tiring and fun,” Amanda said. “It was amazing. I didn’t really think anybody would support it, but they did.”

About 65 percent of the school got involved in one way or another, by Amanda’s reckoning, including her close friends Mackenzie Reed and Sophia DeSimone. The sudden death of their friend’s dad came as a shock to everyone.

“I went home that day and texted Amanda, ‘If there’s anything you need,’” Reed said. “I don’t know how it feels losing someone that way. My mom gave me a lot of money for ring pops and dress down day. And I bought a purple ribbon.”

“During report card conferences, I asked all of the parents for one dollar for a bracelet. And I went and asked all the teachers to buy them,” DeSimone said. “Not only did I want to help out a friend, I wanted to help a cause.”

Amanda Toska learned a lot about true friends.

“They’ll be with you no matter what,” she said. “And even when you’re going through bad things, they’ll help you through it.” ••

Spreading awareness: Amanda Toska, pictured with her mom, Felicia, organized a Power of Purple day at Baldi Middle School in Bustleton, to raise money for pancreatic cancer research. Amanda, who is a sixth-grader at the school, lost her father to the disease last October. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO