Local restaurateur’s nonprofit wages battle against cancer

Maria Fundora raises $3 million for pancreatic cancer research and awareness.

Maria Fundora’s family has always displayed a fighting spirit.

Her father was so determined to come to America in the 1960s that he risked making the trip from Cuba in a small motorboat with three other men and only the clothes on his back.

Reunited with his family four years later, he and his wife put noses to the grindstone, proving to themselves and their only child that penniless immigrants could achieve the American dream of success.

And when her mother lost her short, painful battle with pancreatic cancer, Maria — longtime owner of Alpharetta’s Casa Nuova Italian restaurant — turned her love for her mother and her heartbreak into action: waging war against one of the deadliest of all cancers.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Since 2017, Maria has raised $3.2 million — often over a plate of pasta — to fight pancreatic cancer, the third-leading cause of cancer death in America, behind lung and colorectal cancers.

Dr. Daniel Von Hoff, a 40-year oncologist and researcher, said Maria is attacking pancreatic cancer with the same type of energy that the late Susan G. Komen’s sister used in the 1980s to turn the tide for breast cancer patients. Maria is relentlessly raising money for research, increasing public awareness, and helping change the life trajectory of pancreatic cancer patients, Von Hoff said.

“She has had a major impact,” he said.

The research dollars Maria has raised have helped Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in Phoenix, Arizona, to develop treatment regimens that improve survival, said Von Hoff, a TGen physician and researcher.

“Maria’s dollars have helped us get things that help with Stage 4 disease,” he said. “We have things now that cause (the tumor) to shrink 71% to 80% of the time. Those things improve survival and say: ‘We’re going in the right direction.’”

Credit: Photo courtesy of Purple Pansies

Credit: Photo courtesy of Purple Pansies

When Maria’s mother, Iluminada Milian, received her diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2007, she was immediately told to put her affairs in order. She tried an aggressive form of chemotherapy but died three months after her diagnosis at age 72.

Maria recalls being very angry and thinking: “How could this happen to us? How could this disease take over?”

“I knew I had to do something,” she said. “I didn’t want other families to go through what we’d had just been through.”

Maria and her late husband Tony made their family-owned, farm-to-table restaurant the centerpiece of her fundraising. The year after her mother died, they took the unprecedented step of opening the restaurant on Mother’s Day and donated the day’s receipts — about $3,500 — to pancreatic cancer research. That kicked off a grassroots effort at fundraising that keeps growing.

Maria founded her nonprofit, Purple Pansies, in 2017. She said she thought the name was appropriate since purple is the color of the pancreatic cancer awareness ribbons, and pansies are known for their resilience.The nonprofit has two main fundraising events. One is an outdoor Italian feast, at which restaurant patrons and supporters can fill their bellies and empty their wallets for the cause. The other is a gala held each September. Having outgrown Maria’s restaurant, it is currently held at The Metropolitan Club in Alpharetta.

“Maria’s never met a stranger,” said Atlantan Howard Young, a 20-year pancreatic cancer survivor. “She is just an amazing person. She just cares about others. The world would be a better place if we had more Marias.”

He and Elizabeth O’Connor of Woodstock attend the annual galas as living examples of the value of research and reasons for hope. Since his 2002 diagnosis, Young has survived three recurrences of the Stage 4 disease, the last nearly six years ago. O’Connor, a 43-year-old married mother of two, is a 12-year Stage 4 survivor.

“Maria is a force to be reckoned with,” O’Connor said. “She is not going to stop until we find a cure for this horrible disease.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Another fixture at the galas is Atlanta oncologist Carlos Franco. He was Maria’s mother’s doctor when there was basically no type of treatment for pancreatic cancer. He’s since become Maria’s friend and one of her biggest supporters, speaking at the annual gala and attending other fundraisers.

“Nobody has been able to do what Maria has done for pancreatic cancer” in terms of fundraising for research, Franco said.

The all-volunteer Purple Pansies received a huge boost in 2019 when Kroger came on as a premier sponsor of the fall gala. Other corporations soon followed, Maria said.

In 2020, Purple Pansies raised a record $1.2 million. Maria had an added incentive to push through the challenges of raising money during a pandemic when a supporter pledged to match her dollar-for-dollar if Maria were able to meet her $600,000 annual goal, which she did.

This year’s goal is $650,000. But, of course, Maria is hoping she’ll find someone with deep pockets and a big heart who can help her bring in $1 million. The need for research and advancements is just so great, she said.

The vast majority of the money goes to TGen, a part of the City of Hope, for laboratory and clinical trials conducted throughout the U.S. Some funds are given to families dealing with the disease and as scholarships to children who have lost a parent or guardian to pancreatic cancer.

Maria, 63, has done all this while running her popular restaurant and dealing with her own challenges.

She had a liver transplant in 2019, just weeks before the fall gala. But it didn’t stop her from making a brief appearance. And last year, she lost her husband and well-known Atlanta restaurateur, Tony Fundora.

“Despite all that, she’s just doubled down and said, ‘OK. The best way out of this is to help others,’” Von Hoff said. “Maria’s efforts bring awareness about pancreatic cancer, which can lead to earlier diagnosis and improve a person’s chances of survival.”

Credit: Special to The AJC from T-Gen

Credit: Special to The AJC from T-Gen

Maria said she has high hopes for what may be around the bend in the way of help and hope for pancreatic cancer patients.

“One of the things my mother taught me was the word impossible does not exist in your vocabulary if you really want something,” she said.

ABOUT PANCREATIC CANCER

  • The American Cancer Society estimates that about 62,210 people (32,970 men and 29,240 women) will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2022.
  • The disease has an overall five-year survival rate of just 9%.
  • A person has a greater chance of developing pancreatic cancer if a first-line relative has had it.
  • Pancreatic cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. behind lung and colorectal cancer.
  • Potential warning signs include: blood clots; ascites (excessive abdominal fluids), jaundice; sudden weight loss; upper abdominal pain; depression and anxiety before diagnosis; nausea and vomiting; diabetes; pale feces and dark urine; enlarged gallbladder or liver; and unexplainable fatigue.

HOW TO SUPPORT THE FIGHT AGAINST PANCREATIC CANCER

Purple Pansies. Local nonprofit that offers support to individuals and families affected by pancreatic cancer and funds research and clinical trials. To volunteer or donate funds, visit purplepansies.org.

Pillars of Hope. Purple Pansies annual fundraising gala includes a cocktail reception, multi-course dinner with wine pairings, open bar, silent and live auctions, and live music. $250 and up. 5 p.m. Sept. 18. The Metropolitan Club, 5895 Windward Parkway, Alpharetta. Purchase tickets at e.givesmart.com/events/rkQ/.