When Bill Park’s wife, Mary, suddenly died from brain cancer ten years ago, the Marblehead resident turned his immense sadness into a living memorial of sorts: A 5K run staged annually in Marblehead.
Miles for Mary has raised over $500,000 and counting toward the brain-cancer research of neuro-oncologist Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner, who works at the Mass General Cancer Center. She studies innovative treatments for brain tumors, with emphasis on glioblastoma.
“When Mary passed away, the average survival rate for people with glioblastoma was 13 to 15 months,” Park told the Marblehead News in a Zoom call. “The average survival rate stands at 13 to 15 months.”
The five year survival rate, Park said, stands at a little over 6 percent. He is happy to be partnered with Gerstner and feels useful. A fundraiser seminar during which Gerstner presents on her work and research occurs days after and complements the 3.2-mile memorial run.
“Dr. Gerstner is able to talk about some glimmers of hope,” Park said. “Progress for her is measured in days and weeks of life expectancy.”
While he wishes more breaks arrived faster, he realizes the journey is a marathon not a sprint.
“Lung cancer. Prostate cancer. Breast cancer. They all started somewhere,” said Park. “We hope to get to where those are now.”
The 5K race’s logo, a sailboat with a gray ribbon — the symbol for brain cancer — threaded in its sails, pays tribute to Mary, who loved to spend time on the water.
The five-year survival rates compared to glioblastoma’s:
- Prostate cancer: 98 percent.
- Lung cancer: 64 percent.
- Breast cancer: 99 percent.
Cancer researchers have been building a database of the various iterations, on a molecular level, that glioblastoma materializes. The knowledge culled can inform tailor-made treatments – like scientists and doctors have done for breast cancer, lung cancer and prostate cancer. However, it’s hard to build this database because glioblastoma is extremely rare.
Mary was clever and witty. She loved a good book and talking politics. She frequently played tennis and golf. Park, whom she had two sons with, has said she was a unifer, bringing friends and relatives together.
Her 2012 diagnosis arrived out of nowhere. Doctors found a glioblastoma tumor, and her cancer was so developed that it took her life four weeks after her diagnosis. It’s a particularly aggressive cancer that creeps up on people, often discovered only after hospital visits prompted by the onset of symptoms: Loss in vision. Severe headaches. Memory loss. Out-of-nowhere seizures.
Self-examination for more ubiquitous cancers often lead to early diagnosis – not so much with brain tumors.
Park and Marblehead resident Nate Walton forged a supportive friendship in having lost someone special to them to brain cancer.
Walton and CJ became fast friends. They met at a summertime orientation before their freshmen year at Tabor Academy.
“We lived in the same dorm freshmen year, and we became quite close,” Walton said, adding that they also sailed together. “He was diagnosed roughly round his 16 birthday.”
Oncologists predicted he would live five weeks, but it turned into a year. He was truly a fighter, Walton said.
“I worked closely with CJ’s parents to make sure that his memory stayed alive at school,” said Walton. “I gave a chapel speech – which was a tradition for seniors at school – in CJ’s memory.”
Walton, now with two kids of his own, naturally gravitated to the Miles for Mary cause, helping with marketing efforts. He sees the nonprofit, in part, as a way to pay his late friend homage.
“Nate has been a huge help in trying to get this restarted,” said Park. “As you can imaging with COVID and all that.”
Miles for Mary dollars essentially provides Gerstner with much-needed unrestricted cash. According to the Mayo Clinic, brain cancer is very difficult to treat. Treatments merely slow the cancer’s progression and mitigate symptoms. Cures are nearly impossible.
“Dr. Gerstner gets multi-million dollar grants from the National Brain Cancer Society or the National Institute of Health,” Park said. “Those grants come with a lot of rules, a lot of budgets and a lot of reporting.”
Unrestricted funds allows Gerstner to put the money where she sees fit.
“For example, she could extend an intern in her research for $500 a week,” said Park. “She could afford another $1,000 MRI scan of a patient’s brain.”
He added, “We help her extend her research and work in ways that she might run up against a brick wall.”
That is the value Miles for Mary dollars brings to the research table.
This year’s race will being at Devereux Beach on Oct. 15. Cost is $25 for pre-register online via www.milesformary.com, and $30 for race day registration – which opens at 9 a.m. A seminar follows the race on Nov. 7 at the Eastern Yacht Club; register online at http://www.milesformary.com. Questions? Contact either Bill Park at firstname.lastname@example.org or Nate Walton at email@example.com.