BREWER, Maine — Sarah Robinson was playing drums in a garage band with her bass-playing twin Lindsay Turner when one day in 2010, while playing “Brown Eyed Girl,” she started having trouble keeping the beat.
“I kind of harassed her — I can do that; I’m her sister,” Turner recalled Saturday at the Champion the Cure Challenge where her sister was honored posthumously with the Terry Fox Award. “We thought maybe it was a pinched nerve.”
After a few tests and an MRI, Robinson was diagnosed with brain cancer.
Her family, which includes nine siblings, was devastated, Turner said.
“She was like 24 at the time of her diagnosis. She ran four miles a day, was a member of the Old Town Rotary Club and a Realtor,” Turner said. “She was successful, beautiful, smart and there was absolutely no family history. It totally blew us away.”
Robinson’s husband, Ben Robinson, who was serving a tour of duty in Iraq, returned home to care for his wife and their 5-year-old daughter. The family moved into Turner’s Orrington home to be closer to CancerCare of Maine in Brewer.
Day after day, Sarah Robinson would go in for her pinpoint radiation treatments and chemotherapy and run into other patients, including Eastport resident Cleo Ramsdell, who was battling breast cancer and drove five hours a day — 2½ hours each way — for her treatments.
“She started offering up our house for people to stay” while in town for their cancer treatments, Turner said.
That wasn’t enough for Robinson. She decided she needed to do something more and came up with the idea of creating the Cancer Hospitality House of Maine, similar to the Ronald McDonald House, to provide Mainers with a place to stay when they were in town for cancer treatments.
In the early days of the idea, while Robinson battled the disease that eventually would take her life, “she sat up nights and cried because she didn’t know how she would do this,” her sister said. “Sarah had so many sleepless nights.”
Her saving grace came the second her rotary club got wind of the project.
“The Old Town Rotary Club locked onto the idea and it just snowballed,” Turner said. “Right now, we’re on the brink of construction.”
Robinson’s story is one of many shared at the third annual Champion the Cure Challenge to benefit cancer research at Eastern Maine Medical Center’s CancerCare of Maine at Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer.
“Every person here has a story that is captivating,” said Brad Coffey, vice president for philanthropy at Eastern Maine Medical Center. “The great thing about this event is that it’s for all types of cancer and it’s all local.”
A majority of the funds raised during the event, which included a family walk, walk-runs, 25-, 50- and 100-mile bike rides and a 50-mile motorcycle ride, will go directly to cancer research, said Michael Crowley, president of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems Healthcare Charities.
The event’s overhead is around 15 percent because “the tents, posters, radio time, newspaper ads are all donated,” he said, and sponsors underwrite the rest of the event costs.
Every penny of the money raised by participants “goes directly to research,” Crowley said.
The amount of money raised to find a cure for cancer through the Champion the Cure Challenge has grown by leaps and bounds in the last three years, project manager Jeni Lloyd said Sunday.
“We’re still counting but we know we have $320,000,” she said. “We’ve doubled in revenue every year since 2010.”
Around 1,000 participants took part in the challenge this year, which is almost twice as many as 2011, Lloyd said.
CancerCare of Maine has two programs that will open near the end of this year, one to treat children and one for women battling breast cancer, Coffey said.
“They’ll be able to come to one building to get their care,” he said.
The 900-square-foot Webber Building facility where children are currently treated in Bangor is just not big enough, and has no space for siblings who often are brought to treatments, Coffey said.
“It’s cramped. It’s small and they don’t have privacy,” he said.
The new 8,200 square feet Raish Peavey Haskell Children’s Cancer and Treatment Center, with its huge windows on the third floor of the Lafayette Family Cancer Center and its consolidated medical equipment, is a vast improvement, Coffey said.
The new facility will house Eastern Maine Medical Center’s pediatric oncology and hematology clinic, for children with blood disorders who need daily infusions, he said.
The Children’s Cancer and Treatment Center is scheduled to open in December, and a capital campaign, Heros, Hope and Healthy, is under way. More information is available at hhh.emmc.org.
A new facility dedicated to fighting breast cancer is scheduled to open in January, and is one of many programs in the works supported by funds raised through capital campaigns, said EMMC spokeswoman Jill McDonald.
“It’s very exciting stuff,” she said of the upcoming treatment options while watching the presentations.
Dr. Tom Openshaw, an oncologist who advocates for cancer patients and survivors, was named the honorary chairman. The Champion Award went to People’s United Bank, the Youth Champion Award was given to Tommy Hosmer of Bangor, and Turner and Ben Robinson accepted the Terry Fox Award for Sarah Robinson.
Fox was a Canadian athlete who lost a leg to cancer but later ran across his home country with an artificial limb to raise awareness about the disease and $25 million for cancer research. He died in 1981 but inspired Bangor runner Ed Rice to start a local event, which is now the Champion the Cure Challenge. Lafayette Hotels is the event’s primary sponsor.
Around two dozen of Robinson’s family members were on hand Saturday for the Brewer event.
Robinson’s cancer returned in August 2011 and she died at the age of 26 on Dec. 4, 2011.
“It was so aggressive there was nothing that could be done,” her sister said.
Turner and Ben Robinson have taken Sarah Robinson’s seat on the Cancer Hospitality House of Maine’s board and work to keep her memory alive.
Thanks to the generosity of fellow rotary members, including the late Thomas E. Thornton Jr. of Milford, who donated land to be used to build a house that is being sold to benefit the hospitality house, the board has been able to purchase the fourth floor of the Riverside Inn, located next to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, for the Cancer Hospitality House of Maine.
“It will be for patients and their families to come stay at little or no cost,” Turner said. “The hotel operates at about half capacity so it’s a win-win situation.”
The passionate work that Robinson started will not be forgotten, her sister said.
“What she leaves behind will live forever with the people of Maine,” Turner said, adding that the hospitality house always will be known as “Sarah’s house” to her family.
Those who want to find out more about the Cancer Hospitality House of Maine can visit cancerhospitalityhouse.com.