Notes From San Diego Edition of GCU Run to Fight Children’s Cancer
By Janie Magruder
GCU News Bureau
SAN DIEGO — The brush-with-cancer stories among the nearly 1,000 runners, walkers, (stroller) riders and volunteers at Saturday’s inaugural San Diego edition of the Grand Canyon University Run to Fight Children’s Cancer were as varied as the participants themselves.
Heard ’round the mostly fogged-in (but high-energy) event at NTC Park at Liberty Station:
Shea Neely of Murrieta, Calif., has been cancer-free for 25 years, but she remembers the day she knew something was wrong as if it happened yesterday. She was 15, a high school sophomore who ran track, and she was rooting around in her mom’s closet for a costume to wear on spirit day. And there it was, a huge lump on her right hip.
Days later, in December 1989, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that starts in the bones. Neely had chemotherapy five days a week, for five months. She left school, her hair fell out and she lost weight. She felt terrible and terrified.
“I had never heard of a child getting cancer. It’s always an older person,” said Neely, an executive administrator at Nexus IS Inc., a sponsor of the GCU run. “Looking back, I don’t know if my parents shielded me from the severity or what. We never talked about what if I didn’t make it or what if the treatment didn’t work. I never had the fear of dying.”
In June 1990, Neely had a limb salvage, in which the ball of her femur bone and majority of her femur, from her hip to just above her knee was removed and replaced with a prosthesis.
“Why me?” wondered the girl who had planned to go to college on a track scholarship.
“For the longest time, I couldn’t figure that out,” she said.
Neely enrolled at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But in 1995, she had to withdraw to have her prosthesis replaced; she had grown an inch taller since her first surgery. She went back to school in 1999 and earned a degree in political science.
Neely worked bank jobs in Tucson and Tempe, then returned to California to work as a paralegal. Five years ago, she got involved in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, where she found the emotional support she had needed so much as a teenager but had not known how to seek. She served in the Heroes of Hope, in which survivors travel to various events to discuss their cancer and survival.
As a longtime survivor, she was hope for many parents at Saturday’s run. “I would still say this will be the hardest thing you will ever do, but you can’t give up, you can’t stop fighting,” she said.
Jeff Luttrell is a 20-year, seven-time cancer survivor whose most recent illness has been at bay for only four months. He came to San Diego with his parents, Patti and Steve, but he wasn’t up to being at the run.
Jeff’s a tough guy just the same, and he is the motivation behind the Arizona charity, Children’s Cancer Network, launched by his parents and his sister, Jenny, to help other families. Patti, an adjunct faculty member in GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, said parents need support for their “horrendous journey,” and their children deserve more funding for research and a cure.
“It matters that all of us come together and do this for our children,” Patti said. “It’s a great partnership.”
The Luttrells, who live in Tempe, were accompanied to San Diego by Gretchen and Mike Baumgardner of Phoenix, whose daughter, Olivia, was the honorary race starter at GCU’s inaugural cancer run in 2011. Olivia, 6, has been off chemo since January.
The race was emotional for Farley Spector, who, at age 60, has run 63 marathons and 50 5Ks. He was thinking about his mother, Leah, who died of breast cancer at age 76. He won his age group (60-64), covering the 3.1-mile course in 19 minutes 46 seconds, a pace of 6:22 per mile.
Joining Spector at the electronic results boards was Jerry Albert, 76, who also won his age category (70-99), running 28:13. Albert’s mother, Mildred, died of endometrial cancer.
The men’s 5K winner was Stephen Tippett of Mission Viejo, Calif., with a time of 16:49. Tippett runs a 5K each month, usually for a charity, and he was drawn to the GCU event because of its focus on children.
Second-place finisher Bob O’Toole of Carlsbad, Calif., lost his mother, Barbara, to breast cancer. O’Toole, the father of two young children, can’t imagine either having cancer. “You would give your life for them, so how would you handle that? I almost think I would want to give it up,” he said.
The top finisher on the women’s side was Payson Warlick of San Diego in 21:24.
Bringing up the rear for the 5K runners were Rocio Chairez and her niece, Valerie Lopez, 6, rocking to “We Will Rock You” by Queen. “I want to show her how it’s wonderful to help a good cause, and make her aware of how grateful we are for our good health,” Chairez said.
Aidan Inman, 10, of San Marcos, Calif., sprinted around the survivors’ course with his mom, Jen, in pursuit. Aidan was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at age 6, but now, he said, “I’m perfect.”
Mom agreed: “He’s perfect, four years in January. We’re very blessed, incredibly blessed.”
Eight young cheerleaders from Casillas Elementary School in Chula Vista cheered at the finish line. Jaliyah Journigan, 10, was wise beyond her years: “I know that it’s very hard for parents and children to know that they have cancer, and to know that you have survived from it is amazing.”
Volunteer Pamela Whalen of San Diego was dancing and singing to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” while waiting to hand out medals to runners. She had two very good reasons to be there: her husband, Stephen, died of a brain tumor in 2005, and Whalen is involved in cancer drug research at Pfizer.
“I know research is underfunded and under-represented, and anything we can do to help make a difference, we must do,” she said.
Whelan worked the booth with neighbor Declan Kramer, 11, a friend of Max Mikulak, who died of cancer in 2008 at the age of 7.
The event was sweetly kicked off by Kendra Checketts of Torrey Pines, Calif., singing the national anthem. At the ripe old age of 14, Kendra has been singing since she was 3, and it showed.
With Halloween just days away, some grown-up participants appeared in costumes, ready to trick-or-treat. Early-rising volunteers who skipped breakfast that day were especially drawn to the (not real) bacon pullover on Walter Hernandez of San Diego, and the dress on his friend, Jeannette Rivera (two eggs — sunny side up, of course).
Contact Janie Magruder at 639.8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.