In It Together

CHERRY CREEK COMMUNITY, STUDENTS “PLAY STRONG” TO HELP FUND CANCER RESEARCH

Together Play Strong Cherry Creek and Play Strong Colorado have raised more than $30,000 for blood cancer research at CU Cancer Center

No matter their age, parents and students in Cherry Creek are organizing to support a cause that brought them together twice in a six-month span— Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

On Aug. 15, 2011, Faye Walker, a standout athlete on the Cherry Creek girls’ club soccer team, found herself struggling to breathe. Her team was competing for state cup. Not knowing what was wrong, she was taken out of the game for her own safety. The next day, she’d learn what took her breath away—Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the white blood cells.

After the shocking diagnosis, Cherry Creek High School, where Faye was a student, and the local community came together to support her and others struggling with the disease. Math teacher and cross country coach Karl Mimmack knew where to start. He’d work with students and parent volunteers to start a 5k run/walk in her honor. After all, he’d spent the past 12 years with the Walker family on many athletic fields and knew sports would bring everyone together.

“I know that there are, unfortunately, too many young kids battling their own cancer fights,” says Mimmack, “but Faye’s struck us a little too close to home.”

Shortly after Faye’s diagnosis the high school created Play Strong Cherry Creek, an extracurricu-lar club focused on drumming up support for the “Creek Tramples Cancer—Faye’s 5k” and the “Light the Night Dam Cancer Run 5k,” another race that was later founded by the group. Mimmack is the sponsor of the club.

“Our events have been embraced by the high school, but we also want to embrace anyone who wants to be involved in the cause—helping to fight against pediatric and other cancers right here in Colorado,” Mimmack says.

The support for Faye didn’t stop with the students. Parents and local volunteers embraced the cause and decided to found Play Strong Colorado to help organize the races and raise money for cancer research.

Not long after the first race, the adult group found themselves facing another diagnosis. In December 2011, Carol Ericson, a parent and race volunteer, learned she had stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It had only been five months since Faye’s diagnosis.

“I ran the first race and one week later I was diagnosed,” Ericson explains. “I knew something was wrong during the race. I just did not feel right.”

Ericson quickly found herself at the University of Colorado Cancer Center under the care of Dan Pollyea, MD, MS, assistant professor and clinical director of leukemia services. While she’s quick to point out cancer treatment isn’t fun, Ericson found a second home at CU Cancer Center.

“I don’t want to make it sound like chemotherapy is fun, but every time I went in, the infusion nurses and staff always kept me smiling and laughing,” says Ericson, which is a reason why she wanted to give back to the Center.

Together Play Strong Cherry Creek and Play Strong Colorado’s two annual events have raised more than $30,000 for innovative and groundbreaking blood cancer research at CU Cancer Center.

Playstrong1“The generosity of Play Strong Colorado has really had an impact on the University of Colorado Cancer Center and my program,” says Pollyea. “Their fundraising efforts are supporting the highly innovative and groundbreaking work that we are doing—work that is sometimes unconventional and often not amenable to receiving funding from traditional sources. Play Strong Colorado is allowing this work to continue, and we are deeply appreciative of their hard work to help us eradicate these diseases,” he says.

Today Ericson is cancer free and continues to be a strong voice for Play Strong Colorado. As the organization’s community outreach coordinator, Ericson contacts local businesses around Cherry Creek to gain support for Play Strong Colorado events. She also works with the Play Strong Cherry Creek students to develop new ideas for the races.

“The kids are amazing and work so hard for Play Strong,” Ericson says. “They create all the designs for the t-shirts, come with me to talk to local businesses and restaurants to gather support, and have a lot of fun.”

Despite two cancer diagnoses, Cherry Creek students and parents continue to be champions for their community and local cancer research.

“It is very important to us that we stay local and support local doctors,” explains Ericson. “Not to mention the fact that Faye went to CU Cancer Center for a second opinion and I received great care from Dr. Pollyea during my treatment.”

About the author: Taylor Abarca

Taylor Abarca (Bakemeyer) is the Social Media Web Specialist at the University of Colorado Cancer Center. Contact her at Taylor.Bakemeyer [at] ucdenver.edu.

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