The color purple. A pancreatic cancer story.

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Ken Tolton cared for his wife during her battle with cancer, coloring his lifts purple.

Sometimes she’d fall asleep during chemo.

During those times, he’d usually get out his laptop and try to work.

Ken and Linda Tolton were co-owners of Duke Aerial Equipment Inc. headquartered in Atlantic, Iowa. The town is about an hour east of Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where Linda was being treated.

Sometimes when she’d fall asleep during chemo, Ken would daydream.

About the day they fell for each other.

He was a shy Canadian just down from Toronto, trying to fit in with the locals. She was a

strong-minded, bubbly woman with a smile and personality that changed the atmosphere of any room. He noticed her right away. She noticed him, too.

She was at the bar one night in 1995 – on a date with another man – when she walked over and asked Ken to dance.

“Hey, your date is over there,” he teased her as they danced.

“Well, I don’t like him.”

About how she became his wife, his life.

They worked together at Duke Aerial, which they owned with another partner. She helped with marketing and ran all the books. At first, Ken worried about working with a spouse. Would she be able to grow with the company?

But she did and became a major reason for its success – Duke grew to eight stores around the region. They had their tough spots, like any couple. But their love and respect grew each year, too.

About the day their young son was born.

About how she was too young to be going through chemo, and how their son was too young to lose a mom.

About the future.

If she cried about it, she didn’t let him see. As far as he knew, she came close to self-pity just once. It happened in the first days after she found out she had pancreatic cancer, and little hope of surviving it.

“Why me? I’m only 45 years old. Ken, why me? Why this type of cancer?”

He took a leave of absence from work and stayed home with her every day. He sat by her side every time she had chemo.

Sometimes he’d daydream about what he could do to fight it.

One day as Linda slept during chemo, Ken thought of a way to help. He remembered a story he’d heard about someone who owned aerial lifts on the East Coast painting some of his machines pink, for the fight against breast cancer.

What if Duke Aerial painted some of its boom and scissor lifts purple, the color of pancreatic cancer? What if the company donated some rental revenue toward research to find a cure?

The one-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is just 20 percent. The five-year rate is just 4 percent.

Fewer than 10 percent of patients’ tumors are confined to the pancreas at the time of diagnosis. Usually the malignancy has already progressed to the point where removing it with surgery isn’t possible.

Linda was diagnosed in 2008. She died in January 2009, six months into her battle but long enough to see the first aerial lift at Duke get painted purple.

Duke Aerial has 27 purple aerial lifts now. By the end of this year, Ken hopes to have about 40.

Ken and his partner donate 10 percent of rental revenue to a UNMC fund named for his wife: The Linda Tolton Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund.

Painted on the side of each purple machine is her story. It’s made an impression on people. Those purple lifts are the most popular. Ken hears from renters who’ve read about Linda. Some have lost people close to them to pancreatic cancer, too.

One story was humorous:

Two macho guys – biker types – were working together at a job site in Des Moines, Iowa.

“What are you doing on that purple lift?” one teased the other.

“Hey, you a-hole,” said the other. “Why don’t you read the story on the side of it!”

The first guy apologized.

It’s been two years since his wife’s death and Ken Tolton sits in a break room at the Duke Aerial store in Council Bluffs, Iowa, telling her story. His voice has lost most of its Canadian accent, but not all of it.

Sometimes, he has to stop speaking.

Even though it’s difficult, he says, he’s telling Linda’s story because he hopes it will put a face on this type of cancer and make people want to contribute to her fund.

Because he dreams about a day when researchers find a cure.

“I’m just hoping to try to help so that some other families don’t have to go through it,” he says, “and we’re trying to do our part to find some way they can fight back.”

Cancer research is a priority of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you’d like to support The Linda Tolton Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund , contact Betsy Berentson at 800-432-3216 or give online .

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