It takes about 55,000 steps to complete the Boston Marathon, and with every step she takes on Monday, runner Susan Langlois will be thinking of a vivacious 12-year-old named Abby.
Abby Roxo of Shrewsbury, Mass., has brown eyes that sparkle as bright as her smile, outshone only by her personality. You would never know this energetic and joy-filled young girl is living with a tumor deep inside her brain.
Three years ago, Abby was diagnosed with hypothalamic suprasellar low-grade glioma. Surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital, and 60 weeks of treatment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund Clinic, reduced the size of the cancerous growth and has rendered the tumor stable - it’s still there but not growing. Doctors will have to monitor Abby and her tumor for the rest of her life.
“When your child is diagnosed with cancer, you’re instantly thrown into a storm and you’re just trying to tread water and stay above it all,” said Jenna Roxo, Abby’s mom, “but you really can’t. And then someone like Susan comes along and is like a lifeboat to us.”
Three years ago Langlois, a sales executive at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, was adrift herself, in a way. She had lost her father to prostate cancer in 2006 and found herself desperately wanting to do something “good.”
Then her son Preston told her about a girl in his school, Abby, who had cancer and how the students were rallying around her. Maybe, Preston suggested, Langlois could run a marathon to raise money to fight the disease.
Langlois’ course was set. She joined the Dana Farber Marathon Challenge team and then reached out to the Roxos to ask if Abby would be her patient partner.
“I’m just so thankful” said Abby, seen above with Langlois days before the Marathon. “Having someone do that for you is very amazing.”
And then Langlois began the hard work of preparing for her first-ever marathon.
“I’m a late bloomer,” she says, “I didn’t start running until my 40s. Now I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Today, Abby and her family are as much a part of Susan’s life as running. The Langlois -- Susan, her husband Andrew and son Preston -- and the Roxos (Jenna, Abby, dad Gus, and big sister Lilly) have made the marathon a joint family tradition.
They gather with the larger Dana Farber family at a pre-race pasta dinner where they hear from Dana Farber scientists on the latest in cancer research and celebrate the runners who are raising money to find a cure for the disease.
Members of the Dana Farber Marathon Challenge team commit to raising at least $5,000 each for the cancer institute. In just three years, Langlois has raised about $30,000. Thanks to people like her and support from families like the Roxos, the team has raised more than $90 million for cancer research in the 29 years since it was founded.
“These people are saving lives,” said Jenna Roxo.
On race day the families drive from Shrewsbury to the race together and gather with other Dana Farber families at the 25-mile mark to cheer Susan and other team members on to the finish.
“I have a really loud cheering voice,” said Abby. And when she’s not cheering she’s ringing a bell, loudly. It’s a high-energy atmosphere that Langlois says spurs her on. After all she wants to join the party too.
“That’s my favorite thing about the race,” she says with a smile, “they are having the best time.”
The families reunite with Langlois at a post-race celebration at the Marriot Copley Place. Every member of the Dana Farber team is introduced to another round of cheers and Abby’s bell.
“She never looks like she’s run 26.2 miles” said Jenna Roxo, “even after last year’s race,” which took place in a cold and windy rain.
“I’m proud of the people (who run),” said Abby. “You’re so thankful they spend their time to help you.”
Abby may soon have someone else close to her to be proud of. Her older sister Lilly, now 14, came home from Langlois’ first marathon motivated. She’s now running cross-country track and her goal is to run Boston for her sister as soon as she is eligible.
Langlois will tell you the true inspiration is the people at Dana Farber, especially the patients and their families.
“Abby inspires me,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “I feel like she ran a marathon every time she went through a treatment. She’s a warrior. I think of her every time out there” on a training run.
The reasons Langlois runs are emblazoned on the red and white singlet she will wear on Marathon Monday. There’s her late father’s initials, her mother’s initials as well - she survived both breast and colon cancer. There are the names of other loved ones claimed by the disease. But most prominent of all, in red glitter, is ‘Strong 4 Abby.’
“It’s a way of honoring these people,” Susan says her voice breaking. “Our goal is to reach the ultimate finish line…”
It’s a thought she can’t complete as she thinks about family, friends and a bubbly and brave 12 year old.
That ultimate finish line – it’s a world without cancer.