Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU Today News Bureau
Abriel Bentley is nothing short of spunky.
Just three days after taking her first steps in her new prosthetic, the plucky 9-year-old ambled across the Grand Canyon University campus with some support from her trusty arm crutches.
She already can’t wait until the day she can land a set of carbon fiber-reinforced running blades.
“She’s feisty, very feisty,” her mom, Nikkole, said Saturday morning at Run to Fight Children’s Cancer 2018, where her sister, 18-year-old Ashlyn, sang the national anthem and where the two girls said the prayer to kick off the 10K run.
“Please let the doctors get the right answer to cancer so no one has to go through this ever again,” Abri said in her prayer – the same wish she expressed at CureFest, a rally for pediatric cancer awareness in 2016 in Washington, D.C., and the same wish printed on T-shirts her family wore at Run to Fight.
Nikkole wrote, just three days ago on the Team Abri Facebook Page, “If you haven’t noticed, slow is NOT in Abri’s vocabulary, so this (taking it slow in her new prosthetic) will be quite a challenge. She is already asking when she can ditch the crutches.”
Poor trusty crutches.
It was at the end of August 2015 when Abri told her parents her left leg hurt. They thought it might be growing pains, but she was persistent and, after a trip to the emergency room, doctors told them Abri had an aggressive form of bone cancer in her left tibia called Ewing’s sarcoma.
She fought through 17 rounds of chemotherapy.
She fought for increased funding for childhood cancer research in a video appeal to President Donald Trump (a video viewed more than 1 million times).
She fought through a leg amputation.
And on Saturday, the feisty Abriel Bentley – all sunshine and smiles and golden hair that returned and wouldn’t be defeated by the cancer treatments — fought to take step after step at Run to Fight, which benefits Children’s Cancer Network and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
The 5K and 10K childhood cancer awareness event – the largest in Arizona dedicated solely to pediatric cancer — is in its eighth year at GCU, though this was the first year the event has been wholly in the hands of CCN.
“This season has been an important one and is part of a critical time for Run to Fight Children’s Cancer in going back to its missional roots. The tagline #steppingupthefight describes the management transition and the evolution of this race quite well,” said Debbie Accomazzo, GCU Community Outreach Manager and previous Run to Fight Race Director.
The GCU Foundation started the run in 2011, and Patti Luttrell, Executive Director and co-founder of CCN, said Children’s Cancer Network was happy to take it over from GCU Foundation, which made the transition easier with its work in the previous seven years.
“It’s definitely a little bit more than we’ve done in the past,” Luttrell said. Before, CCN manned the Children’s Cancer Network tent but this year is managing the entire run. “GCU Foundation created such a great event. The foundation was there.”
The race has raised more than $500,000 since its inception and brings attention to the woeful funding for pediatric cancer research – only 4 percent of federal cancer research funding goes to pediatric cancer, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. That’s even though more than 40,000 children are in cancer treatment each year … and even though the No. 1 cause of death by disease in children is cancer, says CureSearch for Children’s Cancer Research.
It was at the 10K where Abri spotted Larry Chloupek, an avid runner who was dashing across the starting line with his arm crutches – one of 2,234 registered runners/walkers that day for the 10K and 5K.
“I’m a 50-year cancer survivor, almost to the month,” said Chloupek, who has run about 25 half-marathons alone (he also runs marathons, 5Ks and 10Ks).
He was just 7 years old when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, which resulted in the amputation of his left leg, the same as Abri. Doctors told him he had a 5 percent chance of survival.
He has thrived, never letting the loss of a leg stop him from pursuing his love of running. The amputation is close to the pelvis bone and makes wearing a prosthetic uncomfortable so he always has run using crutches.
Guinness World Records spotlighted Chloupek in August 2017 on its web site with the headline, “One man, one leg, two records.”
He earned one of those records at Run to Fight in 2017 for Fastest 10K on Crutches (One Leg). He completed the 10K in 1 hour, 7 minutes, 54 seconds.
“Look, there goes your leg buddy,” Nikkole Bentley told Abri at the 10K start as they watched Chloupek take off, hoping to inspire more spunk in her daughter.
“I love running. I truly do love being outside. I love being able to get out there and run with nature,” Chloupek said.
The 10K and 5K couldn’t have started in such spirited fashion without the race starter, 3-year-old Lily Gray, the youngest person to be the honorary race starter. Lily was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia the day before Thanksgiving 2016. She had been falling asleep at preschool and was having digestive issues when her parents, attorneys John and Lindsey Gray, decided to take her in for a checkup. That’s when they got the worst news any parent could ever get.
On race day, Lily hid behind a tree before the family’s race-starting, horn-sounding duties would begin.
“Oh, that’s loud!” John and Lindsey said during a prerace horn test. “Do you want to put earplugs in?”
Lily said, definitively: “No.”
“It’s really, really exciting,” Lindsey said of the family getting the honor of sounding the horn for the start of the races. This marked their second year at Run to Fight; at the 2017 event, Lily was just three months into her 2½-year course of treatment. “It’s a chance to turn this devastating diagnosis into powerful action.”
Cathy Lee-Miller, an oncologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, greeted the Grays as she prepared for her 10K run. She isn’t Lily’s doctor but knows and supports the family.
“I’m a runner, so this is a cool way to combine what I do for fun and what I do for work. I LOVE seeing my patients not in a hospital setting. … It truly is a village that helps these kids,” Lee-Miller said, looking out with tears in her eyes at the sea of families and friends at the race to support their loved ones.
So many family and friends were on “Team Lily Panda” to show the Grays their support.
About 40 to 50 people showed up for Team Olivia – that’s Olivia Baumgardner, who was the first Run to Fight race starter at the first race in 2011. Like Lily, she was just 3 years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the same cancer Lily is battling.
“She had her five-year cancer-free mark in February,” her dad, Mike, said. Although his daughter’s cancer battle was a few years ago, the family and their friends wouldn’t miss Run to Fight, an uplifting event where runners dressed in tutus, cancer survivors donned their golden superhero capes while greeting Iron Man and Cinderella, “Cancer Sucks” buttons were everywhere, a DJ pumped up the crowd, and vendor booths, crafts and games kept young attendees busy.
“It’s just part of our family now. We’re really involved with CCN. … We just love being a part of it. Our kids have grown up being here,” he said.
One of the vendors was Logan Corey, a two-time pediatric brain cancer survivor who lost his vision because of a cancerous tumor. He was introduced to beading during a hospital stay and was selling his beaded jewelry.
“It’s really therapeutic for me,” said Corey. Run to Fight, presented this year by sponsor Pono Construction, was the first big event he attended to showcase his work.
Monica Ruiz and her family lined up for the Cancer Survivors Walk, the culminating event at the race, when cancer survivors and their families are honored as they take a walk around Prescott Field. Their supporters cheer them on, including Thunder and members of the GCU soccer team, to name a few. Ruiz was there in honor of her daughter Alaiyna Palacios Ruiz, who battled diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a kind of brain cancer. She fought for three months before she passed away at age 6 in 2014.
Ruiz teared up when trying to speak about Alaiyna, so Alaiyna’s grandmother, Rebecca Garcia, stepped in to say, simply: “We come (to the run) almost every year.”
Arnold Washington, a GCU employee who works as a lead at public events, was on the job during Run to Fight. Although he and his family never have run in the event, his life, too, has been affected by cancer.
His son, Derick, fought pancreatic cancer.
Their journey started when Derick started throwing up blood at school. But it would be four years in and out of the hospital before a doctor told the family, “We’re going to have to open him up,” to find out the cause.
Derick became the third person in the state of Arizona to undergo a Whipple procedure, a complex and demanding operation to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct.
Washington was a detention sergeant in the Glendale Police Department at the time, and “the whole city rallied around us,” he said.
It’s hard, he said, to see so many families at the race who have lost a loved one. His family could have been in that same place.
By God’s grace, they’re not. Derick is now 25.
“God is good,” Washington said.
Also on the job at the race were members of the GCU track and field and cross country teams, spread out around the course to cheer on the runners. Mariah Montoya, a distance runner on the team, said it made sense for two reasons: They know all about running, of course, and one of their former teammates, Anna Henry, has a younger brother, Micah, who has battled cancer.
Right alongside all the cheer teams were members of the GCU Sports Medicine Club, who performed such an important role last year when Perry Harris collapsed amid the crowd of people after the race. There were no such mishaps this year — the worst injury was a child’s scraped knee — but the club was ready with four first-aid stations, including three on the course, and 12 pairs of students ready to help the nurses who were on duty.
“Sports Medicine Club officers created the action plan and came up with the tents and supply lists,” said Dr. David Mesman, a member of the Athletic Training faculty and the club’s advisor. “It’s a standard of care from major events in sports medicine athletic training. They just took all of that and put it into action.”
Each aid station had one to two nurses, one to two certified athletic trainers, four athletics-trained students, a member of the Health Care Administration Club and 2-3 student nurses from the Student Nursing Association. “It was a good collaboration between the professions within the college, and hopefully there will be more next year,” Mesman said.
Long after the first runners finished was a scene that is the backbone of Run to Fight — hundreds of families and friends, most of them clad in matching T-shirts, completing their 5K walking journey in support of someone they know and love who is or was a cancer warrior. These are the people who make Run to Fight what it is, and Patti Luttrell, who founded CCN with her husband, Steve, after their son, Jeff, was diagnosed with cancer in kindergarten, appreciates their passion and support.
“It’s fabulous,” she said. “It’s so much fun. There’s so much passion here, and there are lots of smiles. Everyone’s happy to be doing something for a great cause.”
Men: Cory Saunders, 36:22
Women: Carrie Weldy, 40:04
Men: Ryan McQuillan, 18:27
Women: Naomi Hopper, 22:53
Rick Vacek contributed to this story.
You can reach GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at email@example.com or by calling 602-639-7901. Follow her on Twitter @LanaSweetenShul.