James Naughton can recite the sobering pancreatic cancer statistics with the nuanced delivery of an actor who has readied his lines for maximum emotional impact. Except in this case, the statistics the two-time Tony Award winner shares over coffee at his Weston kitchen table are not scripted. They are deeply personal.
Four years ago, pancreatic cancer—a disease that is still tragically fatal in more than 90 percent of all cases—claimed the life of Pamela Naughton, his beautiful and devoted wife of forty-six years. The West Hartford natives—who met at seventeen at the insistence of their matchmaking younger sisters—never had a stereotypical Hollywood romance. “In other words,” Naughton says, “we happily stayed together wherever life took us.”
Ever since Pamela’s 2009 diagnosis, Naughton has had an upclose view of pancreatic cancer’s often dire prognosis. Despite her aggressive treatment at Norwalk Hospital and eventual enrollment in a clinical trial at The START Center for Cancer Care in San Antonio, Texas, the best news the couple got during the four years she was sick were brief periods when her disease responded to available treatments. “There were times where it would look good, and then things changed,” James says. “Eventually, the doctors said, ‘This is all we have.’”
The actor notes his family’s story is one too many other families impacted by the disease have experienced as well.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
“By 2020 pancreatic cancer will be the second leading cause of cancer deaths in America, second only to lung cancer,” he says. “The problem is, it hasn’t captured anyone’s imagination. No one is really talking about it. Pancreatic cancer hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, so not enough has been invested in curing it. And the worst thing is, and this certainly happened with Pam, it’s almost always detected when it’s too late.”
Naughton is determined to do his part to change that. Working closely with one of his wife’s most devoted doctors, Fairfield resident Dr. Richard Frank, director of Clinical Cancer Research at Norwalk Hospital, the actor has taken on a new role. He has joined forces with Frank and the Norwalk Hospital Foundation to become a champion and fundraiser for the Pancreatic Cancer Research Project, a three-year Fairfield County–based screening study being conducted throughout the Western Connecticut Health System network.
“I don’t think there is a finer group of people than the Naughton family,” says Dr. Frank. “They are super talented, kind and generous. I am so privileged to have met them and, especially, their matriarch, Pam. I think God puts certain people on Earth to show the rest of us the best of humankind, and Pam was one of those people. I frequently think of her tremendous spirit, thoughtfulness and smile that could light up even a cancer center. What they are doing is fantastic beyond words. The money they are raising for us will fund our study on the early detection of pancreatic cancer. Without their efforts, we could not do the research.”
The study aims to help examine one promising potential new strategy for early disease detection, which Naughton sees as critical to improving patient outcomes. “If there was just a blood test, something that could detect this disease earlier, I believe there would be a lot less heartache,” he says.
Dr. Frank adds, “This is the first prospective study of its kind to try to detect curable pancreatic cancer in individuals who develop new-onset diabetes. The diabetes–pancreatic cancer link is gaining more attention, but the trials to show which individuals should be screened and how they should be screened have not yet been done. We hope to shed light on this and lead the way to developing a robust screening program.”
Naughton, along with his talented children, performers Greg and Keira—as well as his daughter-in-law (and fellow Tony winner) Broadway star Kelli O’Hara—is producing a one-night-only musical theater showcase to be held May 7 at the Westport Country Playhouse to benefit the research project. A Tribute to Pamela will feature the Naughton clan in a variety of performing vignettes.
The playhouse offers a comfortable stage for Naughton, who has directed and performed there for decades. Besides his substantial work on stage and screen, the veteran cabaret-style performer will perform solo, but also include sets with his children. He expects to sing familiar songs with Greg, an accomplished singer/songwriter and cofounder of the folk/rock trio The Sweet Remains. “It will be a family affair and I think that’s special,” says Naughton. “Greg and I have been performing together since he was fifteen, but everyone will be involved and doing things together. Our goal is make it informative, but also very entertaining.”
The Naughton family’s other important goal is to help defray some of the estimated $2.5 million it will take to conduct the Pancreatic Cancer Research Project during the next three years.
Naughton is particularly excited about the project’s focus, the efficacy of using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans as a screening tool in hopes of detecting early onset pancreatic cancer. The study will look at individuals with a family history of pancreatic cancer as well as those with a recent onset of diabetes mellitus (which has been identified as a risk factor for some pancreatic cancers). By giving these individuals screening MRIs, Naughton says it is hoped data can be developed on their potential to catch early cases of pancreatic cancer, improving patient outcomes.
Naughton has also asked Dr. Frank, who is leading the research project, to speak from the stage about pancreatic cancer and the need for this research.
“I have learned a lot about the disease in the last several years, but he’s the expert,” says Naughton, who explained he feels that he is paying a debt of gratitude to Dr. Frank by supporting the research. “My wife had many great doctors, but he was one of the special ones.” He recalled one particularly difficult period during Pamela’s treatment when post-surgical complications landed her in Norwalk Hospital on successive weekends. “I went out to run a few errands, and I showed up one Saturday night and there he was sitting by her bed. He had his own family, but he knew she was having a tough time and he was there. I will never forget it.”
Besides his desire to promote the research, Naughton says he is also motivated by the idea of sparing families some of his own grief. He noted Pam’s disease went undetected for months when she was probably showing symptoms. Before she was diagnosed she had been experiencing complications from an intestinal bug that lingered for months causing a form of colitis; something that diverted attention away from her cancer. “Pam had been feeling a pressure in her solar plexus for months. It wasn’t until they did an ultra-sound that the mass in her pancreas was found,” says Naughton. “It was a pancreatic tumor.”
Her eventual loss was profound for the family. “She was our glue,” he says. Honoring her legacy has become an important motivator. “Why would I not want to move the needle on this disease in a different direction? It needs to happen.”