It takes more than courage to cure cancer


Event Finder

August 20, 2009
84 miles, 6 wheels, 3 people, and 1 determined mom

On Nov. 14, 2005, Julie Haley-Cairns suffered a seizure. Tests revealed a grade 3 brain tumor, and the prognosis for the then-36-year-old mother of two young girls was that she would have two to four years to live.

Since that day, Haley-Cairns' family, including four siblings, in-laws, cousins, and friends, have been a wellspring of support. One sister, who is trained as a nurse, and her brother would accompany Haley-Cairns to appointments, while another would watch the kids. Although her husband, Peter, was ever-present by her side, he still wanted to do more, and searched for a way to contribute.

One day two winters ago, he and Julie's sister, Anne-Marie Haley, realized they had both been avid cyclists at different times in their lives. For Peter, a Massachusetts native, riding in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge (PMC) bike-a-thon, which benefits research and care at Dana-Farber, seemed a natural fit: It would help fund treatments for this rare disease, and in turn, potentially help his wife's recovery.

"Julie continues to do everything in her power to live her life the best she can, as long as she can, for our little family in Saco, Maine," says Peter, who was more of a mountain and trail bike rider than a road rider before signing on for the PMC last year. "She is determined to beat the odds, and the only way for us to do that is to raise more money through an event like this and direct it toward developing new drugs."

For the second time, he and Haley rode 84-miles across the Commonwealth from Wellesley to Bourne, one of seven routes in the 30th annual event that took place Aug. 12. Ryan Murphy, a cousin of Peter's, joined them — along with 5,000 cyclists from 36 states and eight countries. Although they completed their entire course on the first day, the three cycled on the second day as well to gauge whether or not their legs will hold for the full two-day, 190-mile, Sturbridge-to- Provincetown route next year.

Fueling Team Haley-Cairns' pedal power in the nation's largest athletic fundraiser was the fact that all money they raised will go to the Haley/Cairns Brain Tumor Research Fund, which was established to benefit the research of Patrick Wen, MD, Julie's doctor at Dana-Farber. Some of the money used to start the fund last year came directly from Peter's PMC team and will establish the first personalized genotyping lab for brain tumors at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center.

"Dr. Wen has been amazing. He's worked with me to arrange appointments so that I can still spend as much time as possible with my family," says Julie.

Throughout her treatments, Julie's daughters, Megan, 8, and Emily, 6, have been her inspiration. She works full-time as an associate director of admissions for a university in Rhode Island, and is always present at the girl's soccer games, dance lessons, and birthday parties — trying to keep life as normal as possible.

"I had heard about other kinds of cancer, but never brain cancer," says Julie, who speaks publicly to raise awareness of the disease. "It's not a well-known disease, but 10,000 to 13,000 people die a year from it. I think that's a lot. They are waiting for the type of treatments Dr. Wen is investigating."

Because cancers of the brain and central nervous system account for about 1.5 percent of new cancer cases in the U.S. each year, less money is allocated to its research, according to Wen. He and his colleagues Keith Ligon, MD, PhD, and Charles Stiles, PhD, hope to decipher the different types of brain cancers and develop tailored therapies to manage them. When the fund reaches its goal, Wen plans to be able to conduct clinical trials that could lead to breakthroughs.

"I'm lucky to have the family I have," says Julie, who planned to wait at the finish line in Bourne, her daughters in tow holding signs that read "We love you daddy" and "Go auntie, go!", to cheer on the family contingent. "And if what we are doing can help others who don't have as much support, then that's great."

— Dawn Stapleton

Photo Gallery

PMC 2009 rider

View photos from along the route of the 30th annual PMC. Along the way, riders were cheered on by leprechauns and received a watery welcome from the crowd.

View photo gallery