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Neighbor helping neighbor through lymphoma research

12/19/2012 0 Comments Contact Our News Editors

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By Tamara Abbey

Craig Smith, manager of rehabilitation services at Mendota Community Hospital, readily jokes about his size. He knows no one would ever mistake him as a runner, yet that’s exactly what he’s done two years in a row as a way to support his friend and neighbor.

Smith’s friend, Ron Heider, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2011. Smith said he wanted to do something for his friend, but felt helpless.

After searching the Internet, Smith found the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as well as Team in Training, both organizations that let him indirectly help his friend and neighbor of 16 years.
“(The Heiders) didn’t want any money, they didn’t want any donations to them,” Smith said “They’re private people so I thought I could at least give to someone who’s going to fight for him.”

LLS was founded in 1949 by a family who lost a child to leukemia. The organization has since funded research that led to the development of anti-cancer therapies for all types of blood and other cancers.

“At that time if a child was diagnosed with leukemia, it was pretty much a death sentence,” said Jennifer Kirsch, LLS community outreach manager. “Since then, the survivor rate went from about 3 percent to about 90 percent even though it is the deadliest form of cancer for children.”

Kirsch was in Mendota recently to accept a donation that started with Smith’s half-marathons and ended up being supported by receptionist Blanca Zearfaus at the hospital as well. Smith said Zearfaus picked up the challenge and arranged “Cupcakes for the Cure,” a program that involved ordering, baking, frosting and delivering 57 dozen cupcakes to friends and co-workers.
Smith does chuckle a little about his health-conscious attitude toward supporting his neighbor and friend through running and cupcakes.

“I think everyone has an aspiration of losing a little weight and being more fit,” Smith said. “That didn’t happen for me, I ate the calories I burned so I pretty much stayed the same.”

Smith said the opportunity to fundraise on behalf of LLS also brought awareness to the other forms of cancer that are not always as well publicized. When Zearfaus learned of the organization and the research and support it funds, she worked with Smith to do additional fundraising.

One of my things is, you know for years, the hospital has done breast cancer awareness and all that,” he said. “I don’t want to be against it, but there’s so much more out there.”

Blood cancer
Leukemia and lymphoma are in a group of cancers that primarily affects the blood, Kirsch said. With advances in research, this group of cancers is becoming more of a chronic condition as patients continue to live through the diagnosis and treatment.

“The bone marrow transplant was first used on blood cancer patients and is now being used on a lot of other cancers and diseases as well,” she said. “There are a lot of other blood cancer drugs that have been effective are also effective in treating other cancers, which is great.”

Heider was in remission until late 2011 when the cancer came back in February 2012. He has since undergone a bone marrow transplant that resulted in complications with the host marrow. The complications resulted in a longer stay in the hospital and under close observation through the fall months.
Smith stopped to visit with Heider on the day of his half-marathon in Chicago before setting out on his mission to complete the run.

Signs, symptoms
Blood cancers usually present vague symptoms initially, Kirsch said. Fatigue, shortness of breath, bruising and loss of appetite are common symptoms across a range of illnesses. She said people need to know their bodies and be their own advocates when they know something is wrong.
She said one mother was told her child had allergies, but when the symptoms didn’t go away, the child eventually had a biopsy and was diagnosed with leukemia.

Today, that diagnosis is no longer the death sentence it once was, but blood cancers remain one of the more deadly forms of cancer for children, she said.

Team In Training
Smith had attempted some running in the past and has a brother who enjoys running marathons. When it came time to get serious about raising money for LLS, he discovered TnT. Volunteers act as coaches for runners who are running in honor of family and friends.

“I’m not pretty and I’m not fast, but I’m out there doing it,” Smith said. “Here’s an example: My brother goes off in these corrals (groups of more experienced runners) and we did the Shamrock Shuffle (an 8K race in Chicago with 45,000 participants). “He finished before I even made it to the start line.”
But Smith started due to the training and coaching he received in running and fundraising. He said the coaches won’t even consider a person unless they have a goal of raising more than $1,200. The coaches helped him easily raise the money while working out a training routine.

He may not be the most svelte runner, but he believes the training did help his cardiovascular health even though he didn’t lose any weight.

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