My friend Jennie Firth Sheridan was kind enough to share her personal story about love, loss and hope for today’s StyleBlueprint feature. This is her story about her journey to Boston as part of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge program:
In April of 2008, I took my kids to watch the running of the Boston Marathon. Throughout the course of the day, I saw hundreds of runners pass by donning Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge shirts, and it struck a cord. My sister, Molly, who was only 36 years old, lost her life to cancer just 6 weeks prior, and a little fire was ignited as I watched all of those runners in their bright Dana-Farber shirts complete the Boston Marathon that spring day.
You see, over the previous 8 years, cancer had invaded our family in a way that was hard to fathom. Kind of like how cancer invades someone’s body…without permission and without discrimination. I was the second born of five kids – four girls and my brother to round us out. Three of us had been diagnosed with cancer. It was hard to talk about, hard to believe, and almost like a bad joke that was difficult to retell. How did this happen to three young adults in one family within just a couple of years?
It began in April of 2000 when my younger brother, John, was diagnosed with a brain tumor after suffering a seizure one evening. He was 23 years old. Two years later, my older sister, Molly, was diagnosed with the same type of brain tumor after also having a seizure. She was 31 years old. Four years after that, my younger sister, Mary, was diagnosed with melanoma after having a mole removed from her cheek. She was 30 years old. Only my sister, Katy, and I were “clean.”
So back on the April day in 2008, as I watched all of those runners pass by, still feeling so much grief from Molly’s death, carrying so much stress and sadness for the ongoing health battle that John and Mary continued to face, I realized there was something I could do to help. I could run while raising money for cancer research.
I was not a new runner, but I was new to running as part of a charity program. I did some research into running programs that were associated with cancer charities and was drawn to the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge, which benefited the Claudia Barr Program in Innovative Basic Cancer Research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Why Dana-Farber? They were Boston-based, which had been my home for 10 years. A full 100% of the money raised by the team of runners goes directly to research. All of it. Every penny. Dana-Farber is one of the top five Cancer Centers in the United States and the work done at this institute is universally beneficial to clinicians and patients throughout the country. The benefits of the research funded by this team reach far beyond the geographical limits of Boston, providing benefits to patients of all ages with all types of cancer. Being a member of this team would allow me to run my hometown marathon and help raise funds for an institute that could provide help to children and adults from Massachusetts to North Carolina to Tennessee to Montana and beyond. I applied that fall and was accepted to be a member of the 2009 team.
The Boston Marathon is run each year in April on Patriots Day, a state holiday in Massachusetts that recognizes the ride of Paul Revere and the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Marathon training is usually about an 18-20 week endeavor, and if you subtract back from April, you find that the training starts in December, the beginning of the winter. I was not a new runner, but I was new to training through the winters in the New England. I was getting ready to become one of those crazy people I would laugh at, as I would drive by them from the warmth of my car as they were pounding the pavement on freezing cold mornings in the snow. Really? This Tennessee transplant to New England who didn’t even like walking from my front door to the car in the winter was going to lace up some running shoes to fight cancer.
I made it through that winter and arrived at the starting line. I loved and appreciated almost every second of that training season, finding strength, peace and healing through the physical aspect of training for a marathon, and hope and gratitude for the chance to give back through the Dana-Farber team. Cancer is a disease that can leave you feeling helpless and out of control, but by becoming a member of this team, I was granted the opportunity to put up a little bit of fight while at the same time honoring and recognizing Molly, Mary and John.
At the 16th mile of the marathon that first year, my family was there waiting. Mary and John. My parents and my sister, Katy. My husband and children. My cousins. I was filled with energy at their presence, overcome with emotion as I continued on the course after receiving their hugs and kisses. I crossed the finish line in 2009 knowing immediately that this was something I would do again.
26 days after I crossed the finish line in 2009, my brother John passed away at the age of 32. It had only been 15 months since Molly died. The coming year would bring grueling treatments for Mary as she continued to fight melanoma that had spread beyond her skin. Ultimately, cancer robbed Mary of her life shortly after her 35th birthday in February of 2011. In less than three years, my beautiful, vibrant, and courageous sisters and brother, in the prime of their lives, were gone.
What I’ve seen and witnessed throughout the years of managing this disease has given me the drive to keep moving forward towards finding a cure. I have run each year since 2009 for Molly, John, and Mary, inspired by their strength, poise and courage. They never gave up, and I have made the choice to follow their lead and not give up either. Molly, Mary and John embodied what it means to be good, to be strong.
I also run for my parents, my sister, for my nephews and niece who lost their mom, for my children and for the rest of my extended family who have felt these devastating losses alongside us, because this disease reaches far beyond those who have been diagnosed. I run for other family members and friends who have been touched by this disease. I run with purpose and a sense of urgency that this disease needs to be stopped. It is personal and it is important.
My dad used to joke that I ran to get away, to escape….to hide from cancer and crying and stress. For a long time, I felt like I was. But having the opportunity to use running in a positive manner has helped me to see that I am, instead, running towards many things and not away. Towards a cure for cancer, serenity and peace, hope and courage and strength.
Though it was once just a hobby, running for a cause that I believe to be profoundly influential has changed my perspective and outlook, and has taught me so much. It’s changed how I live every day, not questioning why or how but understanding that sometimes there aren’t answers. I find peace in simple every day living, choosing to seek out the positive. I’ve realized that each of us has the power to help bring about changes that we believe to be important and profound, each in our own way, some big and some small. But we have that power. I’ve found that even though it doesn’t always feel right, we need to keep moving forward, and we have to keep living. We owe it to those we’ve lost to keep going, one step, one day at a time.
I am now less than a week away from my fourth running of the Boston Marathon for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, as proud as ever to represent this organization. Over the past four years, I have raised over $100,000 for cancer research, and I know that these gifts given by so many people over the past 4 years are making a difference. I know that my participation on this team helps to further the efforts to find a cure for cancer. I run because I believe. I run to remember. Because where there is love, there is hope.
Thank you, Jennie!
If you would like to donate to Dana-Farber and ensure that 100% of your money goes to cancer research, click here. Consider a $5, $10, $20 or $50 donation today.
To keep up with Jennie, see her blog, Be Good. Be Strong, click here.