By Jen Cunningham Butler
I began riding the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) in 1996 in honor of my mother, Sheila Driscoll Cunningham. Twenty years prior, in 1976, Mom became Founding President of The Friends of Sidney Farber Cancer Institute (now Dana-Farber), raising funds for cancer research and patient care. Mom was a gift shop volunteer with more than 1,000 hours of service, a member of the Institute’s Patient and Family Advisory Council, an instrumental voice in creating Dana-Farber’s non-denominational chapel, and an Institute Trustee. Mom also loved the PMC; each year she put up signs by the road encouraging riders, and our whole family came out to cheer.
Originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986, Mom inspired our family to be involved with Dana-Farber. Five of us have ridden one or more PMCs in her honor, and Dad (Sandy Cunningham) began volunteering in Dana-Farber’s treatment centers when he retired from investment banking in 1998. At age 92, he continues to provide compassionate care to patients, serving up vibrant encouragement with every sandwich. Two nieces now work at Dana-Farber, and I recently received a letter from my 4-year-old great nephew, Harper, who wrote: “Jen-Jen. We would like to donate this money ($90) from our lemonade stand to your PMC ride, to help kids who are sick. Love, Harper and Collin.” Although Mom died in 2003 of a recurrence, her legacy of service continues, even in the youngest members of our family. Dana-Farber and the PMC are an ongoing family affair!
In 2005, my PMC ride took on a completely different meaning. That March I had been diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma – breast cancer. I had known the lump was there, but I ate whole wheat pasta, trained and raced road bikes, went to yoga – I assumed it was nothing, that I’d just been hanging around Dana-Farber too long! Then one night I sat straight up in bed and thought, “What am I doing? I have to get this checked out.” I made the appointment the next day.
Dr. Jack Meyer listened thoughtfully to my concerns. Dense tissue meant that nothing showed on the mammogram, so he performed an ultrasound to double check and a biopsy to be 100 percent sure. We spoke three days later, and, in the kind and straightforward manner that marks his care, he said simply, “You have breast cancer.” I was stunned. The following weeks were a whirlwind of appointments, MRIs, mammograms, and two more biopsies. On April 4, 2005, one day after my 42nd birthday, I went into surgery. My gift came a week later when my surgeon called; they got the stage 1 tumor out with wide margins and clear lymph nodes. Seven weeks of radiation followed, and the radiation oncology team made my daily visits bearable through their skill, humor, and understanding. Just six weeks out of radiation, I rode the 2005 PMC to honor myself and the women I’d become friends with during treatment, and to thank my Dana-Farber team.
Today I am healthy, fit, and well thanks to advances in treatment and patient care made possible by funding from the Friends of Dana-Farber, the PMC, and the Jimmy Fund. I’ve tried to pay it forward by organizing four PMC Kids Rides at Brookwood School, where I teach, walking in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, and accepting a position on the Friends Board in 2010, where I now serve as Co-President. This year I’m riding my 20th PMC as a proud member of the Dana-Farber Flames. Mom is in my heart, and Harper will be at the side of the road with the rest of the family, cheering us on.