Her Mother’s Memory Pushes Melanie to the Finish

Two women smiling

Melanie with her mother

Melanie Santarelli ran the Chicago marathon when she was 10 weeks pregnant. 

The accomplishment speaks to a toughness that Melanie learned from her own mother, Theresa, whose battle with cancer spurred Melanie to begin running. 

At 47, doctors diagnosed Theresa with stage four squamous cell cancer of unknown primary. Squamous cell lung cancer accounts for 30 percent of all lung cancers. After ruling other cancers out, doctors strongly suspected lung cancer. Theresa was a smoker for many years although she quit several years earlier on her 40th birthday. 

Melanie recalls her mother as healthy and active, and the cancer diagnosis came as a shock. 

“You think you’ve quit,” Melanie says, “You don’t realize that these effects carry with you even if you change the behavior. The body just doesn’t turn around like that.” 

Despite the diagnosis, Theresa continued her work as a family and child therapist, working long hours to help families in crisis. Melanie recalls that despite a mentally and emotionally demanding job, her mother always made time for her family. 

Theresa endured rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, always putting her family ahead of herself. She experienced terrible pain as the cancer spread and hindered her ability to walk. 

After three years of struggling, Theresa passed away, just four months before Melanie’s wedding. 

“She was and is an absolute inspiration,” Melanie says, “She never wanted to give up.” 

Woman with stroller and toddler running

Melanie running with her children

Melanie took up running as a way to process the loss. Theresa was a sprinter, and Melanie felt connected to her as she ran up and down Chicago’s lakefront. 

This year Melanie will run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon as a member of Respiratory Health Association’s Lung Power Team. The funds raised benefit the Association’s work to advance lung cancer research and help people quit smoking. 

Though this is her third marathon, Melanie continues to set the bar higher for herself and hopes to finish with a 4:20 time. During her most difficult training sessions, the memory of Theresa’s determination pushes her toward the finish. 

“The training is harder than the marathon,” Melanie explains. “The marathon is the reward at the end. If you can get the through the training, you can get through anything. That’s the mental toughness.” 

Now a mother herself, Melanie feels closer to her mother than ever. Whenever she runs, she mentally checks in with her mom and updates her on her life. 

“She gave me this body, and I’m able to do this because of her. She’s my motivator and my strength.” 

To support Melanie Santarelli and lung cancer research, donate to her fundraising campaign.

Make Every Mile Count with Lung Power Team

Planning to run a race this year? Whether it’s your first triathlon or your 100th 5K, dedicate your efforts to healthy lungs and clean air as a member of Respiratory Health Association’s Lung Power Team.

Joining is easy and the option to choose your own race gives you flexibility to find an athletic pursuit that matches your schedule and skill level.

Team benefits include complimentary training resources, fundraising support, and all the motivation you need to reach the finish line.

“Training is more meaningful knowing that I’m making a difference for people living with lung disease. The support I’ve received from RHA has been terrific,” shares Christopher N. of Chicago, who has run with the Lung Power Team since 2013.

Asthma, COPD, lung cancer and other lung diseases may have touched you personally and clean air affects us all. Make every stride more meaningful in the race of your choice by raising funds for education, research and policy changes that help people live better.

If you’d like to join, contact Rebecca Weinberg-Doptis for more information.

Her Son’s Songs Push Esperanza Fe Borg

Esperanza has lived through the unthinkable. Six years ago her son, John, died of pulmonary hypertension.

This is how John described himself on Facebook: “I’m a pretty simple person to satisfy. Just surround me with good friends and good people, and what more could I want?”

John rarely complained after his diagnosis. As his condition progressed, John would casually mention that he needed to raise his feet, but nothing more. He even helped his friend move. Though able-bodied friends did not show up, John did. He tried to carry small items up the stars, and when he got too tired, he rested on their sofa. As he gained some strength back, he joked about the lightness of the furniture they carried. They said he made the move easier because he made them laugh.

Only once did he say this, “life sucks, I don’t want to have this disease.”

Esperanza told him, “If I could take this disease away from you, I’d take it in a heartbeat.”

Guitar and music were a way for John to relax. It was also a way for mother and son to connect. Esperanza had bought John his first guitar and taught him the basics. But he soon surpassed her skill to the point where she was asking him for advice. John also started singing and recording songs. Later, Esperanza downloaded his YouTube recordings.

John made an effort to travel the country even though he was sick. He elected an experimental treatment, both to be part of the search for a cure and also for freedom of movement. This allowed him to travel to concerts in every state, including Bonnaroo. An admirer of Incubus, Ray LaMontage and Ben Harper, John liked every genre and made friends with fellow music lovers all over the country.

As months passed into years, breathing and doing the activities he enjoyed became more difficult for John. Now attached to the intravenous medication he’d tried hard to avoid, traveling to concerts became a dangerous risk and he had to stop.

Around the same time, another blow hit the family. Esperanza was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now she was fighting for both of their lives.

One day while she was still on chemo, they both felt particularly ill. However, John was always looking to try new things and wanted a certain drink. Esperanza went to many stores looking for the brand even as the bottoms of her feet started hurting, a side effect of chemo. Esperanza finally returned home with the beverage in hand. To this day, she regrets remarking to him, “I hope you know, I had to go all over to get this.”

John said, “Mom, if I could do it myself, I would.”

Even as John’s mobility became limited, Esperanza knew that he could still find joy in his music. In August 2011, he saw a guitar gleaming in the storefront window with a price tag of $2,500. Esperanza agreed that he could have it for his approaching birthday. “Okay,” John had smiled, “but can I have it now?”

“I was glad that I bought it that day,” Esperanza remembers. “He was able to play it twice.”

By Thanksgiving Day of 2011, John’s condition had deteriorated. He asked if he could stay out of the ICU until after Thanksgiving, but this was no longer possible. For John it wasn’t imaginable to be apart from his friends and family on the holidays. Those who knew him understood that he could fill a stadium with his talent. As it was, he filled a whole room in the ICU with those who cared about him.

John struggled to talk, and as the night wore on, even to breathe. He leaned forward to a friend to share an inside joke. Memories closed the gap of what he no longer had the energy to express. It was his old fallback: even as he struggled, John understood that they could still laugh. There wasn’t enough strength left to do much else. Still, he didn’t complain.

When John passed, his group of friends attended his funeral. “I’ve never seen young men cry,” Esperanza recalls.

In the weeks that followed, Esperanza had a difficult time leaving the house. Eventually she joined a number of support groups. In 2012 she found a program called 9 to 5 – a 9-week prep program for a 5K race. Esperanza didn’t socialize much at first. But eventually she began to open up about her reason for running – John.

“Talking about him was a way that I was able to go on. He loved life. I should continue to do things and enjoy whatever life has to give me. That’s how he would want me to live and that’s how he would live. There’s so many things we wanted to do when he got better. He wanted to travel more. He wanted to go to Europe. And hike. I’m doing this for him now. I carry him with me. He’s my strength to keep me going. To do the things that life is giving me.”

John’s friends and Esperanza meet every year on his birthday, which is near Esperanza’s birthday as well. Now they call it “everybody’s birthday” and use the day to celebrate life the way that John did.

“His friends have become my family now. When there’s a wedding… three weddings now,” Esperanza gives a quiet laugh as she considers this. “One of them has a child. His friends invite me. Any kind of event that’s going on, they invite me. They don’t feel sorry for me. They accept me. I’ve become John for them.”

“Just love life. Whatever life puts in front of you. Sickness, whatever it is. Just continue living like today is your last day. Sometimes it’s easier said than done,” Esperanza admits.

As time passed, Esperanza progressed from 5Ks to marathons. John’s YouTube recordings have found permanence on her iPod. On marathon day, her son will sing: not to the crowd, but as part of a conversation, mother-to-son, encouraging her through her earbuds to embrace each step of the 26.2 miles.

“I’m able to walk and run, so I do it. And I do it for him. Because if he were able to do it, he would.”

Visit Esperanza’s fundraising page to support her goals.

Spots for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon are gone but you can still make every step of your next race count. Join the Lung Power Team for some great benefits. You can help RHA achieve healthy lungs and clean air for all!

 

Dr. Cory Sellers is Running on Love

All the text said was “Call us.”

Dr. Cory Sellers knew right away that something was wrong. He had always been close with his parents, and their interactions were normally warm and conversational. But nothing about the past few months had been normal.

It had started with a cough in October of 2016. A primary care physician believed Dr. Sellers’ mother had allergies. Her diagnosis then progressed to pneumonia — a risk among seniors in the winter months. Now his mother was on oxygen, on her birthday, awaiting a pulmonologist’s assessment.

When Cory called his parents back, his shock swallowed his hope for happy news. It was the worst possible diagnosis – stage 4 lung cancer with pleural effusion. The family was devastated.

At 77 years-old, Shirley Sellers had never smoked. Still an avid runner, she was in good shape. In fact, nothing about her life added up to a lung cancer diagnosis.

“I watched this really strong woman — she was the oldest in her family, had younger brothers, grew up on a dairy farm — this was the woman who raised me. To see her collapse under the weight of the diagnosis… you go through the “why her?”

Growing up, both Cory and his mom scuffed their shoes on a baseball diamond. “When I was a Little League pitcher I was so nervous,” Cory chuckles. “She’d come out and practice with me before the game. She had this old Babe Ruth 1920s glove. It was like her pet glove. It had been so beat up that it didn’t have any padding in the palm,” he laughs.

That glove was a relic from Shirley’s childhood, when she took the hard work and pluck that she’d learned on her family’s dairy farm and applied it to a bevy of skills – including developing her pitching arm at a time when participation in sports was exceptional for a young girl.

When the pulmonologist gave her a terminal diagnosis, Shirley and her family became determined to find a way to save her. His sister Kimberlee took care of the day-to-day visits to their mother. Cory — working out of his practice several time zones away in Springboro, Ohio — provided a clear head as their family launched into a search for an alternative solution.

“I felt as though I had to help with the attitude department,” Cory says. “Let’s wait until we get more information, let’s wait until we find out.” He treats patients with significant injuries and who have gone through cancer and knows the value of perspective.

After consultation with an oncologist, they were suddenly renewed with hope. That doctor told them Shirley qualified for gene therapy, and which she began immediately. Gene therapy has been a promising development in the quest for a lung cancer cure, but as a new advancement, it is accordingly expensive. “Fortunately my parents had the wherewithal to stand for that,” Cory acknowledges.

During this process, Cory flew out to Salt Lake several times. The last of these visits was the final time that Cory saw his mother. Just 10 days after beginning gene therapy, the malignant cells invaded the wall around Shirley’s heart. She died of a heart attack.

“My mom had a running partner and they would run about 3 miles every day. Where my parents lived, they would go hiking and skiing in the mountains as well. As she got older, some of those things declined, but the running continued.”

Cory has undertaken his mother’s legacy: one of an adventurous woman who worked hard to set and meet goals for herself. “If you look at the long mile, you’ll be intimidated. But if you break it up, then you’ll reach the end point.”

On his first Mother’s Day without Shirley, Cory was distracting himself by perusing race information for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Fittingly, he found the Lung Power Team. “RHA benefits the Chicagoland area, but I’d like to think that on the greater whole, it benefits everybody. My mom was a runner. This was an easy find to think of Mom.”

Visit Cory’s fundraising page to support his goals.

Spots for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon are gone but you can still make every step of your next race count. Join the Lung Power Team for some great benefits. You can help RHA achieve healthy lungs and clean air for all!

Matt Cantu Runs for His Family

Matt Cantu has lots of good reasons to run with RHA’s Lung Power Team, but initially, he was worried about fundraising.

Now, he’s over 75% of the way to his $1,500 goal.

His first donors were his wife’s parents. Then, Matt put out a request for donations on social media, but he did more than just copy and paste a link. He made his posts – including the message on his Lung Power Team fundraising page – a testament to his decision to run the Chicago Marathon.

“Make sure you write something about why you care,” Matt advises.

Matt is as green to marathons as he is to the world of fundraising. But his reasons for running are rooted in respect for family and his health. Remembering the why helps him tackle these new challenges.

“If you’re not listening to anything while you run, you play things in your mind. It’s easy to give up until you remember all of the reasons why you’re doing it. It helps you to keep going.”

His reasons include his wife, Megan, who lives with asthma and sarcoidosis. Sarcoidosis involves collections of cells that inflame organs in the body, including the lungs. Four years ago, she struggled to breathe. Her symptoms improved dramatically with medical care and a healthier, more active lifestyle.

Although her experience isn’t typical of many people living with sarcoidosis, and she still has both conditions, she’s running 5Ks now.

When she first invited Matt to join her last year, running was painful, but he continued to work hard to improve his running times. Now Megan – who Matt describes as his best friend – is always there to support him for his races.

Although racing is a fun challenge and a bonding activity for them both, they carry a sense of responsibility to stay healthy for themselves and their family – because Matt also runs in remembrance.

Megan’s grandfather, Robert E. Lundberg, lost his life to lung cancer last June.

“He was a Vietnam Vet; that was something that he was really proud of. He wore his Vietnam hat every day; he walked the lifestyle of a soldier. When that disease took over him… to see his body just go down…” Matt trails off in thought.

Robert was a longtime smoker. Though he battled bravely, his health continued to deteriorate. After witnessing this painful progression, as well as the decisions of other family members to become healthier and quit smoking, Matt decided he wanted to get more fit. He believes that if more people witnessed a loved one go through what Robert did, they would make the same choice.

“He went from a really strong man to someone who couldn’t do anything. It was a sad thing, but I always try to learn from every situation that I’m in.”

Matt personalized his Lung Power Team fundraising approach by sharing Megan and Robert’s stories. This helped his network connect their support to RHA’s efforts, such as helping people quit smoking through Courage to Quit and funding lung cancer research. Many have already joined Matt in making a difference as he prepares to run the Chicago marathon on October 8, 2017.

Visit Matt’s fundraising page to support his goals.

Spots for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon are gone but you can still make every step of your next race count. Join the Lung Power Team for some great benefits. You can help RHA achieve healthy lungs and clean air for all!