Op/Ed: Help cure cancer; we all have a role to play

The fight against cancer is one everybody should join

By Kris Toomey


The author, left, her daughter Bridget center and Kris’s mother, Beverly Duncan.

HELP CURE CANCER. I used to think that was a job description far above my abilities. Now, I believe that is a job description anyone can fill.

When a family member, or someone you care about, receives a cancer diagnosis, a common response is a feeling of helplessness. That certainly was one of my initial responses when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in October 2014. But now, I have completely changed my thinking. I think everyone can help in the race to cure cancer. We should all hope so since the President’s Cancer Panel projects four in ten Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Approximately 81,540 Pennsylvanians will be diagnosed with cancer this year. It is estimated that over 589,430 men and women will die in 2016 from cancer – including 28,640 in Pennsylvania.

Our family’s frightening diagnosis came after my mother started experiencing shoulder pain. After a few weeks of seeing doctors who were unable to determine the source of the problem, she went in for an MRI. Afterward, the technician said her spine was much worse than they thought. He put a neck brace on her and sent her by ambulance to the emergency room.

The next 36 hours were a blur of doctors and hospital rooms, ending with my mother having emergency surgery to remove a tumor that had wrapped around her spinal cord, consuming one vertebra and parts of others. She had rods and pins put in and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, for now, an incurable blood cancer.

In September, my mother was a healthy, active, full-time employed 72 year old. In October, my mother was a cancer patient, re-learning how to walk. Fortunately, my Mom is strong and determined. To see her today, you would have no idea of her struggles. She was eventually able to resume her daily walks, maybe not as far and maybe not as fast but she was walking her neighborhood on her own again. Thankfully, I think she passed her strength and determination on to me.

As I was sitting by her side in her ICU room, I discovered a way I thought I could contribute. I discovered that the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) was the benefitting charity for the Ironman Lake Placid triathlon and MMRF had a “Team For Cures” in that race. An Ironman triathlon is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike then a 26.2 mile run.

I could help raise awareness and funding for the MMRF. The MMRF has as its mission to accelerate the development of Multiple Myeloma treatments to extend the lives of patients and lead to a cure. The MMRF is the number-one private funder of Multiple Myeloma research worldwide and it has achieved some incredible results: playing a role in ten new drugs approved by the FDA, funding over 350 research grants and launching more than 55 clinical trials – to name just a few. Since its founding, patient survival has tripled. No other cancer has seen this type of extraordinary progress in the past decade. Yet, multiple myeloma remains incurable, and funding is critical to advance potentially lifesaving treatments that could benefit patients like my mother.

I had done short-distance triathlons, but never a full Ironman. I had never even done a half Ironman. That made Ironman Lake Placid seem like quite a daunting task, but it did not stop me. A month after my mother had that fateful MRI, I joined the MMRF Team For Cures for Ironman Lake Placid for July 2015. I had a lot of training ahead of me but I was motivated to use this as a way to raise awareness for multiple myeloma and MMRF. I may not be the doctor in the lab doing the research to find a cure or the doctor treating the multiple myeloma patient so they can continue to live their life. I now realize I don’t have to be either of them to contribute to the fight against multiple myeloma.

I am the person that has shared my story and lent my voice to the fight. Because I did this, I’ve connected with others going through the same struggles my family went through. To be able to offer a few words of hope and encouragement from my experience is one way that I can help in the fight against cancer. I have received contributions and notes of gratitude and thankfulness for my actions from friends who lost parents to multiple myeloma many years ago. I have received support from family, friends and complete strangers. No gesture is too small in the fight against cancer! I had the chance to meet Tom Brokaw last month and it was an honor for me to be able to tell him that I raised over $20,000 and was part of a team that raised over $800,000 to help cure the disease he is battling.

Of course the big prize is finding new and better cancer treatments and, eventually, a cure.  That is where MMRF’s role is so essential.  My mother continues her chemotherapy treatments. One of the drugs she is taking is one that the MMRF helped bring to market. Hopefully this course of treatment will put her cancer in remission. Once a drug has been used to fight her multiple myeloma, it cannot be used again to fight a reoccurrence. This is why the incredible work of the MMRF is so important! We need to continue to research new treatments and eventually find a cure.

I hope you will join the race to cure cancer! You can take your first steps by joining my husband, Pat, and me and Team Toomey at the Please Touch Museum on Saturday, April 23 for the Philadelphia Multiple Myeloma Networking Group’s 5k run benefitting MMRF. For more information on the 5k, go to philadelphia.myeloma.org/miles-for-myeloma.

For the more ambitious racers, join me and the MMRF Team For Cures in the new half Ironman in Atlantic City. On September 18th we will be in Atlantic City racing for MMRF again, but this time only doing 70.3 miles – 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run. You can follow us, follow my Mom’s progress, encourage and support the whole MMRF Team For Cures on my blog at the bottom of my race page at support.themmrf.org/goto/kristoomeyimac703

Kris Toomey is the wife of U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA).

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