September 1, 2022

Badger Challenge: Raising money for cancer research at the University of Wisconsin

Madison, Wis. – The UW Carbone Cancer Center invites the community to take part in this year’s annual Badger Challenge as a participant, volunteer or donor.

The event, happening in Madison on Sunday, Sept. 25, is a fundraising event powering cancer research at the University of Wisconsin, as well as treatment provided by UW Carbone.

This year, it will be one special participant’s first time walking in the event, but his journey with Badger Challenge began years ago.

Jeff Voelkel worked at American Family Insurance in 2018 when he was approached by Deric Wheeler, director and co-founder of the Badger Challenge, and professor of human oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and Dr. Paul Harari, chair, Department of Human Oncology, UW School of Medicine and Public Health, and Badger Challenge co-founder. They were interested in partnership opportunities between American Family Insurance and Badger Challenge.

Voelkel, who had several loved ones who experienced cancer, thought it was a worthy cause and worked to bring the event to the American Family Insurance headquarters site for the 2019 event. Though that year was eventually canceled due to weather, and Voelkel retired at the end of 2019, the event is now staged at the American Family Insurance national headquarters on the east side of Madison.

In April 2021, Voelkel noticed a lump on one side of his neck under his chin. Thinking it was a simple cyst, he made an appointment to have it looked at by his local physician in the Milwaukee area near his hometown of Mukwonago. In May 2021 he had it removed and was informed it was actually a type of head and neck cancer, specifically p16-positive metastatic squamous cell carcinoma.

One of his first calls was to his now friend Deric Wheeler. Wheeler led him back to Harari for a second opinion since Harari also specialized in head and neck cancer as a radiation oncologist at UW Health.

“Dr. Harari contacted me within a day,” Voelkel said. “He answered all of my questions, listened to my concerns and we created a plan.”

Despite the distance, Voelkel chose to receive his care from Harari in Madison.

“I was used to the commute from my days at American Family,” he said. “But even if I wasn’t, I knew UW Carbone was where I wanted to be for this treatment.”

Voelkel began radiation therapy at the beginning of August 2021 and finished mid-September, so he was not yet up for participating in the event in 2021.

This year, he’s excited to complete a walk that in some ways began back in the 1980s.

“I saw my father go through throat cancer and I think about how different my experience was to his,” he said. “That’s the power of cancer research and innovation. That’s why raising these funds is so important.”

Voelkel will be walking with his wife, Jean, and other family and friends.

So far, the event has raised more than $1.8 million since it began in 2016 and organizers are hoping for a record-breaking year, according to Wheeler.

“The patients, researchers and care teams participating are an incredible group,” Wheeler said. “They are raising money to accelerate discoveries and treatment options for cancer, inspiring their community to get involved and we are humbled by their passion for our work.”

There are many ways to participate in the Badger Challenge. Participants may choose to walk, run or ride. Distances include a 5K walk/run, a half marathon, and bike routes include 5K, 25K, 50K, 100K or 100-mile. Non-local participants can opt for the global program where they can select any event and participate where they want between Sept. 25 and Oct. 9.

“I’m glad to be a part of this, and I hope I can inspire others to join the cause,” Voelkel said. “Because almost everyone, in some way, has been impacted by cancer.”