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Life after Cancer

Cancer survivor raises over $100,000 for cancer research.

As Vienna resident Stacy Capra struggled with breast cancer treatments, she recalled how her father, James Thomas, had coped with the news that he had brain cancer.

"He gave me the road map with how to deal with the disease," Capra said, who had held her father's hand as the doctor gave him the diagnosis. "He knew that he lived the life that he wanted to live, and that his family was with him. And that's how he lived, doing the best for his family."

Capra, who will be cancer-free for three years on Feb. 28, credits her father as her inspiration not only for overcoming cancer but for educating others on cancer awareness. From April 2002 to September 2003, Capra raised more than $100,000 for cancer research by getting friends, family, neighbors, local businesses and area high-school students on board to support the American Cancer Society (ACS). In addition to speaking with students about her experiences with breast cancer, she has also organized teams to participate in the Relay for Life, an annual ACS fund-raiser hosted in several Northern Virginia communities. The event aims to honor cancer victims as well as survivors.

"The reason I wanted to tell my story is to talk about dad and his courage," Capra said.

CAPRA'S STORY didn't begin in 2001, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It started when Capra was a student at James Madison High School in Vienna. While a student, Capra learned how to conduct a breast self-examination.

Years later, when Capra was 35, she found a lump while taking a shower. Although she didn't conduct self-exams regularly, she knew she felt something different. She called her doctor from the shower.

"I probably had a heightened sense of awareness," said Capra, explaining that her father was diagnosed with brain cancer several months before.

When Capra found out the lump was malignant, or cancerous, she began chemotherapy treatments and six weeks of radiation. During treatment, friends sent her cards and e-mails, brought her meals and baby-sat her children.

"It was impressive to me because she was pretty candid and forthright with what she was facing," said her friend Robin Kent of Great Falls, referring to a letter Capra had sent to friends explaining her situation.

Meanwhile, her father underwent two clinical trials in hopes of getting his cancer removed. He also read up on the disease and wanted to know if it would pass down to his children.

They both decided to run the Relay for Life in Manassas, in order for their loved ones to be more aware of the disease.

"I have the opportunity to say thank-you to all the people who brought me through the treatment," Capra said.

Once Capra finished her treatment, she wanted to talk with area high-school students about the disease, since it was in high school that Capra learned how to do breast self-examinations.

At Robinson Secondary in Fairfax, she worked with marketing students to lobby Congress on a bill that would put ingredients on cigarette labels.

"I wanted them to be able to see that we can make a difference," Capra said.

Capra also worked with high-school students and friends to organize teams to participate in the Relay for Life, determined to raise $100,000 for the American Cancer Society, an organization she respected because of its depth and reputation in research. She picked the amount because after raising $46,000 for her child's school auction, she thought $100,000 was doable.

"She's just a very, very dedicated volunteer," said Nikkii Greenleaf, a community specialist with the American Cancer Society. "It's extraordinary what those teams can bring in."

To raise the money, Capra gathered friends, family and the local community to help her. At last year's Fairfax Relay, she helped organize 37 teams that participated in three local relays.

Of those teams, 27 were student teams from Madison, Oakton and Lake Braddock high schools. One team from Madison was recognized as the Top Youth Fundraising Team. Capra's own team, the Thomas Promise, raised more than $11,000.

"They really take it seriously. You can't say that enough about their leadership skills," said Capra of the students.

AMIT KAKAR, a senior at Madison, was involved with a Madison team that came away from the Fairfax Relay last year with the distinction of being the youth team raising the most money. It had raised around $2,000, through car washes, raffles and friends.

"When I looked at it, I thought it was a good way to do some good for the community," said Amit, who said the team, which has been in the Relay for two years, plans to be involved again this year.

"Cancer, it's all around my life," said Kakar, adding that he and his friends have known people who have had the disease. "And the relay is the only way I can take something around me and turn it into something positive."

With businesses, Capra left money jars for patrons to donate change. At Chesapeake Bagel Bakery in Oakton, a jar that has been near the cash register since April 2001 has raised more than $2,000.

ALTHOUGH CAPRA reached her goal, she also aspires to remain healthy. She participated in last year's Race for the Cure and Avon's Walk for Breast Cancer.

She has been working on a book with Kent on her life with cancer. During her treatment, Kent, a photographer, had sent her photographs of flowers, because she sometimes couldn't have flowers in the room due to chemotherapy.

Alongside Kent's photographs and his descriptions of the flowers are Capra's musings of what was happening with her and her father's treatments. While she lived, her father died.

"It's the story of what it's like to lose someone who has cancer," said Capra.

This year, Capra is registered to participate in the Avon's Walk for Breast Cancer. She is also pushing for the Vienna and Oakton area to host a Relay for Life in 2005.

The relay, a family-oriented event, often includes a walk-a-thon, games such as lip-sync singing and pie-eating contests, and a ceremony honoring cancer survivors and victims. Nationwide, 3,200 relays took place last year, with the Fairfax Relay raising over $220,000 and the Reston Relay raising over $400,000.

"I couldn't have done it without the support of my family and friends, and I needed to say thank-you," Capra said.