GCU run shows cancer fight is community project
Story by Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
It was a mass meeting of a community, one in which family, teachers, friends and colleagues joined together in colorful T-shirts, tutus, buttons, gold shoelaces and capes. One in which some smiled, some laughed and others cried as they shared their stories. One that brought thousands of hugs, high-fives and cheers to Grand Canyon University Saturday morning.
The GCU Foundation Run to Fight Children’s Cancer is one of the University’s signature events. Each year since 2011, thousands of runners have lined up at the starting line to raise awareness of childhood cancer, the leading cause of death by disease among children 14 and younger, and to raise funds for the Children’s Cancer Network and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
This year’s race starter, Emma Kerr, a spirited, 11-year-old dancing queen, got the festivities going with a big smile and a loud blow of the horn. It has been nearly 16 months since Emma was diagnosed with leukemia and yet, despite her battle against infections that have weakened her leg muscles and confined her to a wheelchair, her mission to encourage others was there for all to see.
“This is our first time here, and it is such an inspiration because Emma is really determined and wants to get better and show everyone that she wants to beat cancer just like others who are here,” said Emma’s mom, Ildi Kerr. “We take our cues from her — she’s upbeat and it’s a good day for her, so it’s a good day for everybody.”
What thrilled Emma most was that she and her dad, James, took part in the race — a move he considered to be a side effect from the noise and the crowd.
“It was a last-minute thought,” said James, who pushed Emma in her wheelchair around the course. “We saw so many of our friends and decided to catch up, but next thing we knew we were passing everybody.”
Emma and James boldly crossed the finished line together, wheelchair and all. However, Emma didn’t finish the show there. Later, during the Cancer Survivors Walk, she pulled herself up and pushed her own wheelchair across the finish line right alongside the other radiant cancer warriors.
It was a morning full of closeness and hope.
Cindy Gutierrez and her family had a lot to say about cancer. One child wore a shirt that read, “My cousin kicked cancer’s butt.”
Another: “Cancer tried to bully my sister, but it messed with the wrong sister.”
And, her 7-year-old daughter, Victoria, who is battling brain cancer, shined in a sparkling T-shirt that read, “I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.”
“There were so many things that we could write about childhood cancer, but I just wanted to keep it simple,” Gutierrez said. “This shows that we are not in this alone. Cancer changes your whole meaning of life and changes your family. You see these little kids, who while they love anything and everything around them, they are also fighting to keep it.”
Kendall Baltazar had a team of 30 rooting behind her in their “Fight Like a Girl” tees. The 11-year-old, whose lymph nodes and thyroid gland had to be removed because of thyroid cancer, said it was surprising to see how many people cared.
“I didn’t think that what I had was this bad,” Kendall said of the disease. “I thought it was the type [of cancer] that is easy to get rid of, but I was still scared. And it’s really nice to see all of the support here.”
For her dad, Paco Baltazar, the event meant tears.
“Cancer is still hard to talk about because she’s my little girl,” he said. “You don’t want to see your little girl go through this.” But Baltazar wiped off the tears as he jogged to the starting line hugging his family and friends.
Rose Provincio donned her sneakers for her 5-year-old nephew Gabriel, a liver cancer survivor. Gabriel was diagnosed with cancer when he was 1. Although autism holds him back from speaking, it did not keep him from spinning in circles and leading his aunt through the crowd. “He is happy, healthy and normal, and that’s why we are here today,” Provincio said.
A simple gesture of a button turned into a beautiful moment for the GCU Department of Communications and Public Affairs. Communications Manager Janie Magruder recently was diagnosed with leukemia, and colleagues and friends wore “JM” buttons in support of the redheaded Denver Broncos fan, who considers covering the race her favorite GCU assignment.
Tears welled up in Delilah Bojorquez’s eyes as she remembered her 3-year-old daughter, Azalea Frankie Harper, who passed away from intrinsic pontine glioma, a cancerous brain tumor, on Jan. 3, 2015.
“It was very devastating, and it is still hard now trying to find ways to be happy and find the blessing in it,” Bojorquez said while leaning on a friend for support. “I kept waiting for the moment when I would wake up. I just felt numb, and I didn’t understand until we started going through the radiations and the doctor’s appointments — that’s when it all became real.”
Because she found it difficult to talk about her daughter, Bojorquez said she instead devoted herself to making the last seven months with her daughter the best months of her life.
“If it meant for everyone to get up and sing and dance, that’s what we did. If it meant watching ‘Frozen’ for the thousandth time, that’s what we did. We just kept her comfortable, and that’s how we found our strength,” she said.
While Bojorquez still mourns the loss of Azalea, she said she has decided to turn the experience into something good: She wants to live life to the fullest, the way her daughter would want her to.
Shawnee Chanley signed up to join the cause in honor of herself and her 16-year-old daughter. While her daughter wasn’t next to her, they’ve supported each other as they face the pain of double cancer.
“Everything has happened really fast, and it’s been very exhausting,” Chanley said. “We never really had a chance to absorb any of it, but now for the most part we can begin to process it.”
Chanley was in a car accident last February, and after a CT scan in the hospital, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Then, in April, her daughter was diagnosed with stage three melanoma.
“We still have a few more rounds of treatment and radiation to go, but we’re sticking together,” Chanley said.
Sarah Timmons celebrated with the “Joy Squad,” a team of friends, church members and family who wore the words proudly on their gold headbands.
Timmons recalled how before the diagnosis, her son Josiah was constantly sick.
“There were fevers, congestion, he had ear tubes put in, adenoids taken out and with that, the surgery showed signs of cancer,” Timmons said. “I was relieved to find an answer because I knew something wasn’t right, but I trusted the Lord knew the plan for Josiah’s life.”
Josiah was diagnosed with cancer on Oct. 29, 2015, and finished his treatment at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in February.
While treating cancer was difficult and energy-consuming, Timmons said she owes it to the hospital for their support.
“They were amazing,” Timmons said. “If I needed a hug or had a question about his diet or needed someone to talk to, they cared. That’s what people need — to know that there are people who care.”
Yasmeen Hafez was passed down from the arms of one family member to the next. That was the moment her relatives have been waiting for — the chance to hold her all over again and to create new memories.
Two months ago, the 1-year-old bundle of joy beat cancer. With a head full of curls,and a tiny scar on her neck, she is as vibrant as ever.
“When a child is a cancer patient, it takes a toll on the entire family,” her aunt Stephanie Casillas said. “Right now, it’s all about holding and hugging her and watching her dance to ‘Frozen.’ “For a long time we had to get used to seeing her with her tubes and accept that we couldn’t carry her. But as soon as she starts twirling, we all stop because she deserves that.”
Raiyn poked fun at her mom, Angela Meade-Pinner, as she choked up in tears. “You should record her,” she told her older sister. But Meade-Pinner’s tears were those of joy, and all she could do was squeeze Raiyn between her arms.
Raiyn is a six-year cancer survivor who had one of her kidneys removed after she was diagnosed with cancer at 17 months.
“She’s our everything,” Meade-Pinner said. “Cancer was a roller-coaster and it took a lot of making a new ‘normal’ for ourselves, but God gave us a second chance with her.”
Raiyn giggled when Meade-Pinner nudged her and asked if she was happy to be alive.
Her dad, Daniel, shared their joy. “It’s a miracle,” he said.
Dominic Pachuilo, a freshman at GCU, was diagnosed with stage four acute lymphoblastic lymphoma last May, just two days before high school graduation.
At 18 years old, the teen said that after X-rays showed a tumor in his chest, it felt surreal.
“I definitely didn’t believe it to be true,” he said. “I thought somebody my age was invincible and cancer was something I didn’t have to worry about, but three months ago I was sitting on the couch on anabolic steroids, puffy and always pushing a wheelchair, and I never thought that I would be able to walk or run again.”
Although Pachuilo’s treatment is scheduled to last two more years, he expressed joy in being able to stand on his own two feet again. He also is proud to serve as a mentor for other children facing cancer at Cardon Children’s Medical Center in Mesa.
“I’m finally at the point again where I can run again, and there’s no better way to show people than to run in this 5K race,” Pachuilo said. “It’s definitely a blessing and Godsend for me to be able to do that because the kids and I encourage each other all the time — they fight hard, and that’s what gets me through my fight.”
First-place finishers in the 10K run were Nicholas Coury, 28, with a time of 35 minutes, 31 seconds and Lauren Humphrey, 27, with a 44:47. In the 5K, the winners were Robert Schultz, 50, with a 17:39 and Madisyn Van Sickle, 19, with a 19:50.
Statistically, childhood cancer rates have been rising slightly the last few decades, and about 10,380 American children under the age of 15 are presumed to be diagnosed with cancer in 2016. If there is one major thing that GCU’s race proved, it’s that cancer occurs regularly and randomly, so it takes a community to take on the fight.
“The word cancer is a really big word — it’s a really scary word,” said Debbie Accomazzo, GCU’s community outreach manager and also the race director.
“I’m proud of this community because from inside the university, to all the families battling cancer, to sponsors and vendors, this is an amazing example of how a community beats cancer. If I feel anything today, it’s pride in the people around me.”
Emma and her family also were overwhelmed by the support.
“You see that there is a lot of love for our kids, and this is a great community to be a part of,” Ildi Kerr said. “This is an event that we will be a part of next year and for the rest of our lives.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.