Families stand strong at Run to Fight Night
Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
But she shouldn’t have been standing there.
It was 25 years ago, when she was just 8 years old, that Okot — then Sarah Maurer — brawled against Stage IV Wilms Tumor, a childhood cancer that gets its sinister start in the kidney.
“My parents were told I wasn’t going to make it,” she said of that time.
They were told wrong.
The 25-year cancer survivor, now a child life specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, won that fight. And on Wednesday night, during Run to Fight Night at men’s basketball, she took her place alongside children waging the same war against cancer that she waged so many years ago.
“It’s cool to talk to their parents and to give them hope,” Okot said as she and the other cancer survivors, all special guests at the game, walked onto the court just before halftime to be honored by the crowd. It was one of the final Children’s Cancer Network Run to Fight Children’s Cancer events before the 5K and 10K runs arrive on the GCU campus March 16.
Mario Marino also didn’t know if he would be here, walking onto the court with other cancer survivors. He was 16 years old when he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Now 22 and a CCN volunteer, he has hit that 5-year milestone, when cancer is unlikely to return.
He, too, wanted to give hope to parents that their children will move beyond cancer, grow up and live their lives.
“They can see how much better I am now,” Marino said.
That seed of hope is something germinating in the heart of John Gray, whose daughter Lily was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was just 2 years old.
At Wednesday’s game against Eastern New Mexico, he looked into the distance, the weight of the years of cancer seemingly lifting. He said, “She doesn’t remember being diagnosed. So she doesn’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t have cancer.”
That realization was significant to John, who feels the wind of change coming. Will there be a time she won’t remember, not just being diagnosed, but ever having cancer? When asked about the year that has passed since the last Run to Fight, he said: “She just had her last chemotherapy done, hopefully, EVER. … That’s a big change.”
The past 12 months has been a pivotal one for the Gray family. Lily served as last year’s Run to Fight race starter, an honorary title given to a pediatric cancer fighter who sounds the air horn to start the races — in addition to the 5K and 10K, there’s the Cancer Survivors Walk, too.
Lily’s hair, once lost to chemo treatments, has returned, going from a pixie cut last year to longer and curlier.
The Gray family was celebrating at Run to Fight Night alongside not just the adult survivors of childhood cancer but the families of young children, like 4-year-old Lily.
It was by happenstance, said Lily’s mom, Lindsey, that she realized she knew someone in this year’s race starter family. She happened to see something posted on the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk page.
“This is the same Leslie,” she said to herself, when reading about Leslie and Galen Satterlee and their daughter, Gwyn, who also was battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia, like their Lily. As it turns out, the moms served in the same community service sorority in college, they both became attorneys, and both are moms to two daughters.
Gwyn, 7, will take her place, much like Lily did in 2018, as this year’s race starter.
Gwyn, her mom and dad, and her sister, Paige, spent part of their time at the men’s basketball game getting a behind-the-scenes tour of the Arena so they would be prepared for what’s to come: Leave your seats at 7 minutes on the clock. Here’s the hallway to enter center court for your introduction. Here’s where you’ll go for your on-court, halftime interview …
It’s just a taste of what will come on race day, when approximately 2,300 participants will converge on campus for Run to Fight, which also will feature a post-race festival, appearances by princesses and superheroes, and even runners in tutus.
Although almost 10,600 children younger than 15 years old were expected to be diagnosed with cancer in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society, only about 4 percent of federal government cancer research funding is allocated to study children’s cancer, said the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.
Since CCN launched the race in 2011, it has raised more than $600,000 in the fight against pediatric cancer.
CCN Executive Director Patti Luttrell, once a faculty member in GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions whose son, Jeff, is a cancer survivor, talked passionately at Run to Fight Night about the organization’s latest project, CCN Connect.
It will be a once-a-week, hourlong program delivered to children ages 5-12 through a video web connection that will include everything from science experiments to arts and crafts.
“It’s gives us the opportunity to reach children who are isolated,” Luttrell said of children whose white blood cell counts are so low they can’t be around other people.
The pilot for CCN Connect will be launched soon. It’s the latest in the organization’s arsenal.
CCN also delivers more than $75,000 in gas and food cards annually to families of children with cancer, is funding a full-time family therapist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, gives $30,000 of scholarships annually — including to Okot and Marino — and much more.
Then there’s Run to Fight Night.
“The main objective is fun and connections,” Luttrell said of CCN Connect, much like the objective at Wednesday night’s men’s basketball game, an evening that CCN shared with the military for a God Bless America-themed event.
“It’s a great opportunity to draw awareness in a really fun environment,” said Galen Satterlee, whose family is ready to tackle their duties as the honorary race starter family on March 16.
“Tonight is about fun and being able to celebrate,” Luttrell said. Then she thought about the evening, the children and the military celebration converging on one glorious night. She spoke about how brave the country’s servicemen and servicewomen are: “Our military are so amazing, and then there’s the bravery and resilience of children’s cancer superheroes, as well. They’re all superheroes.”
And they’re all standing there, and standing strong.
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
RUN TO FIGHT FACTS
What: Run to Fight Children’s Cancer 2019
When: March 16. The 10K starts at 7 a.m., the 5K at 7:45 a.m. and the quarter-mile Cancer Survivors Walk at 9 a.m. The post-race festival will feature a vendor expo, arts and crafts, and other activities.
Where: GCU campus
Cost: $45 for the 10K and $35 for the 5K for registrations completed today (its $50 and $40 afterward). The Cancer Survivors Walk registration is free and open to cancer survivors of all ages.
Benefits: Children’s Cancer Network and Phoenix Children’s Hospital
Host sponsor: GCU
Grand presenting sponsor: Pono Construction
Register: www.runtofightcancer.com. Online registration is open until midnight March 15. Race-day registration will be available between 5:30 a.m. and the start of each run.
Information: Patti Luttrell, 480-398-1564 or [email protected]