Air Force Academy, Harvard part of Marsh’s pancreatic cancer research passion

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 4,357 views 

Madison Marsh is beyond busy. The Fort Smith native will graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy in June. After that, she plans to attend the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Before that, she competes in the Miss Colorado pageant. Flight training follows Harvard. During all of that, she’s active with pancreatic cancer research and fundraising.

During a recent interview, she laughed when asked if she had time to eat and sleep.

Tackling insidious pancreatic cancer is her primary passion. Marsh and her family – father Mike and sister Heidi – founded Whitney’s Race in honor of her mother, who died at 41 from pancreatic cancer – just 10 months after her diagnosis. Madison met with members of Congress in November 2021 – which included an unplanned visit with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair – to lobby for more pancreatic cancer funding.

The Whitney Marsh Foundation has raised more than $230,000 since 2019 to support cancer research. Part of the support includes giving $85,000 to the MD Anderson Pancreatic Cancer Moonshot program, $95,000 each to Mercy Fort Smith and Baptist-Fort Smith, and a recent donation of $40,000 to Mercy Fort Smith to help fund pancreatic cancer detection testing.

“The Marsh Foundation donation includes funds that will allow more high-risk patients to have the test, which costs $949. Additional funds from the Marsh Foundation have helped bring about education opportunities for doctors and enhanced care for patients,” noted a statement from Mercy Fort Smith.

The test being funded is the Galleri Multi-Cancer Early Detection test. According to Mercy, it is a blood test that can detect more than 50 types of cancer in the early stages, including pancreatic cancer.

Whitney Marsh

The next Whitney Race fundraiser is set for Oct. 28 at the Bakery District in downtown Fort Smith.

Marsh, a 2019 graduate of Southside High School and a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy, is set to graduate on June 1 with a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics. She is raising money to pay tuition for the two-year graduate program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Marsh stressed that she is raising money privately because cadets cannot publicly solicit funds. She would attend the Harvard school as an Air Force officer, with the school essentially being a duty station in her military service. Marsh also has been approved for a pilot slot, so after Harvard, the plan is to attend flight school.

Marsh, 21, also supports ongoing research at the Boston-based Dana Farber Cancer Institute, one of the leading national and global cancer research organizations. Dana Farber and the Harvard Medical School have created a research consortium with more than 1,100 cancer researchers at seven Harvard locations. Part of the research Marsh is excited about is using artificial intelligence to detect pancreatic cancer.

Madison Marsh

The Kennedy program is part of what Marsh says is a path to stay focused on pancreatic cancer research and funding. The licensed private pilot – she soloed a plane on her 16th birthday – previously considered being an astronaut but has put that on hold.

“At the end of the day, I know what I’m most passionate about is pancreatic cancer and being able to advocate for people, whether that will be having a seat in Congress later on or working with a national nonprofit. I think that’s probably where I see myself more in a later career to help other people,” Marsh told Talk Business & Politics.

She said the challenging academics required to obtain an astrophysics degree would benefit a cancer research path.

“All of the things I’ve learned from physics have really helped me. Because a lot of the classes we’ve had to take, like computer science, and computer programming, I’ve been able to take those skills I’ve learned initially and apply them to more diverse cancer research,” Marsh said.

Marsh, also the reigning Miss Academy, is eligible to compete in the Miss Colorado pageant in May. It’s another venue for her to push her pancreatic cancer awareness message. Her talent is a 90-second monologue about her first solo plane flight.

She acknowledges that her path, accomplishments and opportunities since graduating high school in 2019 are “crazy” and understands she is an example of what is possible.

“It is pretty crazy thinking about … being able to start with those roots there (Fort Smith and Southside High School) and all the people there who helped me get to the Air Force Academy, which inevitably led to me being able to go to Harvard. So I’ve thought about it a lot and am extremely grateful for our community back home. Hopefully (I can) represent Arkansans on a bigger scale and let them know that this is something that is definitely within their reach as well,” she said.

Praising her accomplishments so far is U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, who has mentored Marsh.

“Madison is a uniquely talented young leader who has distinguished herself at the Academy in all facets of life. The hardship of losing her mother from a terrible illness galvanized her ambition to excel, and every day she brings credit to her school, community, state and nation. She is, without a doubt, one of the finest young leaders I’ve had the privilege of mentoring,” Rep. Womack noted in a statement sent to Talk Business & Politics.