BREWER, Maine — Newburgh resident Greg Nash went to the doctor to get a routine checkup because he was having some minor chest pains. He learned he had cancer.
“I don’t care what people say, when they first say that ‘C’ word, it feels like a death sentence,” he said Saturday morning while sitting in the shade of the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer, just before the start of the Champion the Cure Challenge. “It’s been a real life changer and a challenge.”
Nash, diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, is currently in his second round of chemotherapy with a new set of experimental drugs administered through Eastern Maine Medical Center’s CancerCare of Maine, located on the Brewer campus.
His granddaughter, Vanessa Nash, a previous participant in the Champion the Cure Challenge, gathered the family and started a new team, “Gramps Champs,” which includes her younger brothers, Marshall Nash, 17, and Levi Nash, 15. The team raised more than $1,600.
“We’re doing this 5K for our grandpa,” Levi Nash said.
“We’re running for him,” Marshall Nash piped in.
“People came out of the woodwork to support us,” Vanessa Nash said. “People really came together for this.”
The amount of money raised to find a cure for cancer through the Champion the Cure Challenge has nearly doubled and so has the number of people involved, said Michael Crowley, president of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems Healthcare Charities.
“We topped half a million this year,” he said. “Last year, we raised $300,000 and the year before it was $150,000.”
The total was $460,000 on Saturday, but an anonymous donor has pledged to match all incoming donations for the next month, until the total reaches $500,000, project manager Jeni Lloyd said.
Three years ago, 500 people participated in the run-walk-bike event and last year, the number grew to 830. This year, 1,564 took to the streets in support of the endeavor, she said.
“It’s amazing,” Crowley said.
All donations to Champion the Cure Challenge stay local to help fund cancer prevention, patient care and clinical trials at CancerCare of Maine, said Elizabeth Martin, director of philanthropy campaign for Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.
“The fact that it stays — 100 percent stays — at the EMMC CancerCare center, that’s pretty cool,” she said.
The Rev. Tom Obey and his wife, Lori, owners of the Lighthouse Radio Network in Bangor, which includes 88.5 FM WHCF and 105.7 Solution FM, said they participated in last year’s event and returned this year with a passion.
“Last year we were supporters and this year we’re participants,” Tom Obey said.
Lori Obey was diagnosed six weeks ago with lymphoma, he said.
“She’s in the fight,” Obey said of his wife.
The person the couple supported last year, is now a survivor and walked on their team this year, Lori Obey said.
The radio stations ran promo spots about the event and held a fundraiser that brought in about $13,000 for Sara’s House, known officially as the Cancer Hospitality House of Maine, which provides Mainers with a place to stay when they were in town for cancer treatments.
Joshua Tunick of Bangor, riding as part of the WBRC Architects and Engineers team, was the first cyclist to return from the 100-mile bike ride. There was also 25- and 50-mile rides.
“My father just beat cancer and that’s why I’m riding,” he said shortly after finishing as his wife, Allison, and children, Sawyer and Alexandra, gave him hugs.
His father, Roy Tunick of Morgantown, W. Va., stood by and waited until they were done, then he strongly hugged his son. The elder Tunick was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome and Chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
“I had a bone marrow transplant seven months ago,” he said.
More than 230 community members joined a bone marrow registry on Saturday during the Champion the Cure Challenge, one official said. She said that number will be added to the nearly 200 others who signed up for the registry at last year’s event.
Potential donors are added to a registry that seeks to match them with cancer patients in need of lifesaving stem cell transplants.
Carla LaFayette, wife of Danny LaFayette and mother of Ramsey Lafayette, a nine-year survivor of stage 3A melanoma, sat on the curb waiting for her husband and son to get back from their individual bike rides. Her son took part in the 100-mile ride with her two brothers, and her husband took off on the 50-mile ride after first running the 10K.
She said her father died of colon cancer and the couple have been long supporters of cancer research. She reminisced about pushing her children in strollers during the Terry Fox runs of yesteryear, but said it was when Ramsey got sick in high school that the couple stepped forward to lead the charge and bring CancerCare of Maine to the area.
“We saw first hand how much it affects people,” LaFayette said, a camera in her hand ready to catch her son and husband crossing the finish line.
Ramsey, a 2005 Hampden Academy graduate, went through six months of interferon treatments that eradicated the cancer doctors found in his body in the fall of 2004.
“So far, so good,” LaFayette said of her son.
The Hampden couple are local hoteliers and philanthropists, and donated $2 million for the family cancer center that bares the couple’s name. LaFayette’s mother, Laurna Rawcliffe, waited with her at the finish line.
Greg Nash said it was a simple blood test that identified the cancer, multiple myeloma bone cancer, which is a cancer of the plasma cells within bone marrow.
“The blood tests came back showing some very weird numbers,” he said.
An appointment was made with Dr. Tom Openshaw, an oncologist and last year’s Champion the Cure Challenge honorary chairman.
“They got me in immediately,” Nash said. “They did X-rays, MRI — the whole gamut.”
After starting the second round of treatment two weeks ago, “they tell me my numbers are stable,” he said. “This isn’t cancer that goes away. I’m always going to live with this, to the end.”
The diagnosis changed the entire family’s outlooks, his wife, Pat, said.
“We don’t take anything for granted anymore,” she said. “You love more. You really do. We both have faith in God. That has gotten stronger too.”
Marshall and Levi Nash said they both are still kind of in shock after learning their grandfather was fighting cancer.
“It’s hard to describe,” Marshall Nash said.
“We weren’t worried,” Levi Nash said. “We knew he was going to get healthy with the technology of today and our support.”
Nash and his wife said they are amazed with the treatments he’s received at CancerCare of Maine and is even more impressed with the people who work there.
“It’s a house of angels,” Pat Nash said.
BDN reporter Ernie Clark contributed to this story.