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Conquering Peaks, Valleys

River Falls hiking group raises money to fight leukemia and lymphoma

Sandy Harrison has never been much of a hiker. She’s never been one for fundraising either, but both of those things changed this winter.

“I’ve never done fundraising before, so it’s been a bit of an experience going out asking your neighbors and your family for money,” said Harrison.

Harrison and four of her friends from the River Falls neighborhood joined the National Capital Area chapter of Hike for Discovery, a program run by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Participants in the program raise money for the society while being trained and taught how to hike. At the end of the 18-week training program the five women, along with members of their chapter, will hike into the Grand Canyon in Arizona to honor those who struggle with blood-related cancers.

In particular, said Harrison, the group will be hiking for Kelly Linderman, who has been designated as the group’s Hike Hero. Linderman is a local woman who was fought Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a variety of related illnesses repeatedly since she was diagnosed in 1998, said Harrison.

“She’s just so brave,” said Harrison, “I can’t even imagine what it’s like to go through something like that.”

The five River Falls friends — Harrison, Anne Killeen, Ally McMahon, Veronica Mungai Barris, and Margie Rodan came across the idea when they got to talking.

Killeen had participated in Team in Training, a similar program run by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that prepares its volunteers to run marathons.

“Ann and Margie and all of us play tennis together and do a lot of things together,” said Harrison. “We talked about it and people got people excited and when it came around that there was a hike we said, ‘well that’s something that we can probably do.’”

THE GROUP IS LED in their training by Jon Regan, an experienced hiker who first volunteered with the program in its first year in 2006.

“Last year… I did it because I enjoy hiking and it’s a good cause so it was a good chance to do two things at once,” said Regan. Then it got personal for Regan.

“Last summer I was diagnosed with lymphoma,” said Regan. “There’s no history [of cancer] in my family; I did all of the things that you’re supposed to do — I ate right, I exercised… when you find out, it’s just horrifying.”

Fortunately for Regan, he knew where to turn. Regan was put in touch with counselors from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society who in turn got him the most current research on his condition and put him in touch with experts around the country. They helped him sift through a plethora of information and to pick the proper course of treatment.

“They have counselors that help you,” said Regan, who lives in Northern Virginia. “The counselors are really the key thing. The technology is changing so fast that… if you have [information] that is a year old, its seriously out of date,” said Regan.

Regan said that despite the fact that his type of lymphoma is often incurable he is now in remission and that doctors believe his body is now cancer-free. He credits that to the fact that his condition was discovered very early and to the help that he got from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“Having had access to their services… they really are second to none.”

The women of River Falls said that apart from his wealth of hiking knowledge, that Regan’s battle through sickness has been an inspiration to them.

“He’s so active, you’d never even know that he’s had [cancer],” said McMahon.

THE RIVER FALLS WOMEN, along with the rest of the area chapter, began their training program in early February. In addition to a hiking schedule that has the group taking a longer hike each successive week up to the final hike, the program involves upper body strength training as well, said Harrison.

That training includes a daily routine of pushups, crunches, leg lifts and supermans — an exercise where one lays on their backs and lifts all of their limbs into the air and then repeatedly touches their hands to each of their feet. Then they go out for a walk around the neighborhood, said Harrison. The River Falls women frequently do this training together.

Harrison said that she has noticed a big difference even after just six weeks of training.

“I have upper body strength, I have endurance, and I really feel good when I go to work,” said Harrison.

Meanwhile the women are working towards a fund-raising goal that is higher than the minimum standard set by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

“We’ve committed to raise $25,000 between us,” said Rodan. The minimum level to qualify for the trip to the Grand Canyon is $4,400 per participant, Rodan said.

The people that they have approached about donating have been receptive because so many people are affected by cancer in one way or another, said McMahon.

“A lot of people have aunts or uncles or in-laws who have dealt with it,” McMahon said. The River Falls women said they too have friends and relatives who have dealt with cancer. Some were successful and some ultimately succumbed to it.

Anne Killeen said that her children sense the importance of what she is doing. Her daughter recently gave her the $50 that she earned in one night of babysitting.

“Kids get the meaning of this too,” said Killeen.

The memories of the people they have known and the thought of those who they can only imagine is what drives them, they said.

“When you’re out there [hiking] sometimes you think, ‘I can’t keep going, this is too much,’” said McMahon. That’s when her thoughts turn to the people for whom she hikes. “Then I think, ‘If that person can get through their ordeal and have faith, than this is not that difficult.’”

“You get back and you’re exhausted, but its nothing compared to battling through leukemia,” said Rodan.

LAST SUNDAY the National Capital Area chapter of Hike for Discovery was supposed to hike the Billy Goat trail in the C&O National Historic Park, but could not because the trail was closed due to inclement weather. So they hiked on the Virginia side of Great Falls instead.

“It really was a gorgeous walk and a beautiful day for it,” said Harrison.

By the time the training program has concluded, the group should be fully prepared for their final hike, Harrison said.

“By then [we] will have done the work to get there,” said Harrison. “The heat might be something left to contend with.”

So too will be the weight of remembrance. The group will carry wristbands with them bearing the names of those who have fought cancer. They will march in honor of those who have passed and in support of those who continue to battle through, said Harrison.

Everything that they have and that they will do has been worth it, said Harrison.

“There’s been such an outpouring of support,” said Harrison. “We would really like to see research make a difference in someone’s life.”