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Christine Fleuriel

Walking for others: Step by step, Jimmy Fund Walker reaches personal milestone

Photo of Christine Fleuriel with her walking team

Left to right: Christine Fleuriel started her 13-mile trek with fellow "Team Lenny" walkers Thomas Edward and Susan Murphy at Wellesley High School. (Mary Lane photo)

Christine Fleuriel, who has headed Dana-Farber's Baruj Benacerraf Library since 1988, wrote this first-person account a few days after participating in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk on Sept. 17, 2006. It originally appeared in slightly different form in the Newburyport Daily News the following week.

What better activity to enjoy on a beautiful late summer day than go for a walk? How about 13.1 miles? That's what I did on Sunday, but not for my health. This was for the future health of unknown children and adults, the ones who currently are and the ones I hope never are patients where I work: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Dana-Farber has been holding the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk for 17 years. Its three distance options cover the entire 26.2-mile course of the Boston Marathon, a race that lurks as a possibility in the mind of nearly every New England runner. It occurred to me, which is why, in 1985, on a similarly warm April morning, I started in Hopkinton, only to drop out on the final upward stretch of Heartbreak Hill at around the 20-mile point.

What inspired me to participate in the Walk? First off, I was embarrassed that after nearly 18 years of working at DFCI, I had not taken part in more of these events. I had once volunteered at the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge, handing out number packets the day before the race to those runners fundraising for Dana-Farber. My other major contribution, other than my work as Dana-Farber's library director, was to regularly donate blood and platelets — something I had started doing as a college freshman in 1969.

As my husband and I approached Wellesley High School on Sunday morning, I began to experience the same excitement I used to feel before races and triathlons. Many people had already started walking at 9:30 a.m., although the official start time from Wellesley was 11:00. As a lot of people do, I walked with a team. "Team Lenny" is named for the late Leonard P. Zakim, former New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. While being treated at Dana-Farber for multiple myeloma, Zakim had used complementary and integrative therapies like acupuncture and massage, and our center offering those treatment options is named after him.

After our team met, we headed out. As we walked along we got to know each other in ways we didn't before. Most of us work at Dana-Farber, but in different departments, so our interactions weren't numerous. We discussed topics as varied as politics (always good just before a primary), the Red Sox (a requisite) and the other walking teams. Some team names were funny, such as "Hemoglobin Trotters" and "Walking Talkers." Some shirts, unfortunately, read "In memory of…". It was particularly poignant when the remembered person was a child or a young person - another reminder of why we were walking.

At every mile marker there was a large photo of a current Jimmy Fund Clinic patient. Many of us touched these posters of smiling children as we passed by, perhaps hoping to get some of their strength. Maybe that was why it felt as though the miles melted away seemingly quickly. It was incredible when I passed the 23-mile mark that, not only did I only have 3.2 miles left, but that I had already walked 10. Yes, my body could feel some discomfort, but 10 miles' worth?

As I continued along I thought of people I have known who had cancer. The first was my father, who was diagnosed in 1962 with colon cancer. Sometimes I'm amazed that he survived; 1962 is like the dark ages for cancer treatment. Then there's my friend Mary, who called me nine years ago to tell me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had just turned 36. We had been pregnant together, her son being born two months before my daughter. Because of her spirit during her treatment, I used to think that if I had to have that disease, I wanted to be like her. Two years ago, when I was told this might be a possibility after an abnormal mammogram, she was one of the first people I called.

There was also Dan, whom I met on a January night in 1984 while I was out running. His daughter is my son's age, and I saw him at school events. Like Mary, Dan's spirit was fantastic. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. And now there is a current patient I met because she has written about how she has dealt with her diagnosis, and has even made a film about it.

Shortly before we turned off Commonwealth Avenue onto Hereford Street and the homestretch, a woman caught up with me and said that she was glad I was still holding one of the bumper stickers her group had handed out about ovarian cancer. Of course we chatted, and I learned both that she knows someone who has had four relapses of ovarian cancer and that her mother is a trustee of Dana- Farber. We parted as we turned onto Boylston Street, and I walked the last few blocks with two teammates. As we passed the gauntlet of volunteers at the finish line and received our medals, I choked up. It felt as though I had won a race.

I am healthy enough to appreciate the aches I have today. For me it's more meaningful to use that health in a physical way, by walking, donating blood, however I can if it helps someone else.

Christine Fleuriel