A father and daughter's race to beat leukemia

November 1, 2013 by Mary Elizabeth Dallas, Healthday Reporter
A father and daughter's race to beat leukemia
Man behind the idea of runs to raise money for research recalls his child's battle with blood cancer.

(HealthDay)—Bruce Cleland has vivid memories of the day in 1986 when he learned that his daughter Georgia, then 2, had been diagnosed with the most common form of childhood leukemia.

He got the news that Georgia had in a phone call from his wife, Izzi.

"I nearly fell out of my chair," Cleland recalled recently. "Leukemia was a really dark word. I thought it was a ."

Although it's still a frightening diagnosis, the overall five-year relative survival rate for this has more than quadrupled since 1960.

Clare Karten, senior director of patient engagement strategy at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, said a significant amount of medical progress has been made in the past 25 years.

"For everybody with every type of blood cancer, there is more hope than ever before," Karten said. "That's for sure."

Cleland can vouch for that. His daughter, now 29, is cancer-free. The experience also prompted Cleland to create a new way to raise money for research that has become a national model and inspired millions: running for charity.

But the first two years after Georgia's diagnosis were tough, Cleland said.

"When something like this happens, you initially think the sky is falling on you," he said. "Then there is the resilience of human nature and you pick yourself up, reassess the situation, get educated, discover support groups and start to figure it out."

For the next two years, Cleland and his wife immersed themselves in a new reality involving chemotherapy and radiation treatment for the cancer that had spread to Georgia's brain. An entrepreneur, Cleland also put his business acumen to work for a cause now close to his heart.

He and his wife joined the board of the Westchester County, N.Y., chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Cleland was soon chosen to contribute to the organization's fundraising efforts in support of groundbreaking research. After many traditional fundraisers, Cleland knew it was time for a change.

At 41, Cleland was out of shape and looking for ways to get outside. Always intrigued by the idea of running a marathon, Cleland reached out to a friend, Olympic long-distance runner Rod Dixon. With Dixon's help, Cleland made the decision to trade in his tuxedo for running gear. Rather than dine and dance, he'd race for a cure.

Cleland devised a plan to form a team that would run in the 1988 New York City Marathon to raise money for research. He managed to recruit a total of 38 unlikely marathon runners for his team that first year. He didn't know it at the time, but he and his team were making history as the first organized charity runners.

Although Cleland expected corporate sponsors or individual donors to give what they could, he admits now that many donations came in as bets. "They'd say, 'I'll give you $10 a mile, but only if you finish,'" he said. Using the training advice they'd received from Dixon, each team member completed the marathon. Cleland crossed the finish line in five hours and 23 minutes.

"I said our objective was to raise $150,000 because I thought it would help motivate people, but it was unheard of at the time for one event," Cleland said.

The first run raised $322,000.

Following the success of that first marathon, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society reached out to Cleland to learn exactly how he had pulled it off. Based on his initial business plan, the organization rolled out a national Team in Training program.

Since then, 600,000 participants involved in a variety of Team in Training events, such as marathons, half marathons and triathlons, have raised $1.4 billion for blood cancer research.

"It's kind of a mind-bending amount of money," Cleland said. "That's where the headline often ends, but the really important part is what's happened to that money."

The research grants provided by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society have funded many of the most innovative and promising advances, including targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

"We create partnerships with universities, as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, to get treatments to patients, especially those with unmet medical needs," Karten said.

For Cleland, the journey has brought powerful personal rewards.

Georgia doesn't remember much about her cancer treatment. But she said she'll never forget the undying support of her family.

Georgia also has completed three Team in Training half marathons. When she signed up for her first race, she said her dad was shocked.

"He said, 'Are you really going to do this?' I said, 'Just watch me!' "

Crossing her first finish line, Georgia said she saw her father and shed tears of joy. "It was an amazing experience," she said. "Every time I sign up for a [Team in Training] event it's just beyond exciting. It's not just about me. I enjoy the opportunity to meet participants who are helping to save even more lives and hear their stories."

Looking back, Cleland said quitting was never an option. "You can never give up, no matter how bleak or tough it gets. The sun will come up the next day and there will be a tomorrow," he said. "It's just about how you are going to deal with it. What you do is what will define you."

Explore further: Reducing the risk of burns at home

More information: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Information Resource Center provides details on treatments for leukemia and other forms of blood cancer.

Related Stories

Reducing the risk of burns at home

December 11, 2012
(Medical Xpress)—Home is where most of us feel safest, but it's also where nearly 80 per cent of all burn injuries occur, new research shows.

Can marathons temporarily hurt the heart?

October 31, 2013
(HealthDay)—The thousands of runners who will take part in the New York City Marathon on Sunday most likely believe they are strengthening their cardiovascular system by participating. But new research suggests the strain ...

Running a marathon can be bad for the heart, especially in less prepared runners, say experts

October 9, 2013
Investigators who studied a group of recreational marathon runners have established that strenuous exercise such as running a marathon can damage the heart muscle. Although they found the effect is temporary and reversible, ...

Not faster, but longer -- new drug changes beat in treating heart failure

August 19, 2011
A new drug which offers a radically different approach to treating certain types of heart failure has been shown to improve cardiac function in heart failure patients in its first clinical trials.

Recommended for you

Single blood test screens for eight cancer types

January 18, 2018
Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center researchers developed a single blood test that screens for eight common cancer types and helps identify the location of the cancer.

These foods may up your odds for colon cancer

January 18, 2018
(HealthDay)—Chowing down on red meat, white bread and sugar-laden drinks might increase your long-term risk of colon cancer, a new study suggests.

The pill lowers ovarian cancer risk, even for smokers

January 18, 2018
(HealthDay)—It's known that use of the birth control pill is tied to lower odds for ovarian cancer, but new research shows the benefit extends to smokers or women who are obese.

How cancer metastasis happens: Researchers reveal a key mechanism

January 18, 2018
Cancer metastasis, the migration of cells from a primary tumor to form distant tumors in the body, can be triggered by a chronic leakage of DNA within tumor cells, according to a team led by Weill Cornell Medicine and Memorial ...

Researchers find a way to 'starve' cancer

January 18, 2018
Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) have demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to starve a tumor and stop its growth with a newly discovered small compound that blocks uptake of the vital ...

Modular gene enhancer promotes leukemia and regulates effectiveness of chemotherapy

January 18, 2018
Every day, billions of new blood cells are generated in the bone marrow. The gene Myc is known to play an important role in this process, and is also known to play a role in cancer. Scientists from the German Cancer Research ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.