Thousands Support Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at Dolphins Cancer Challenge

A brilliantly sunny South Florida Saturday warmed the already upbeat spirit of the Dolphins Cancer Challenge VII on February 11, as 4,000 participants and volunteers cycled, ran, walked or performed countless tasks to support the search for cancer cures at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

DCC VII’s five cycling routes — the Dolphins Ride (14 miles), the Ft. Lauderdale Ride (25 miles), the Miami Ride (35 miles), the Boca Ride (52 miles) and the Hurricanes Hundred (100 miles) — departed from different locations throughout Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, but all ended at the finish line in the Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium, where thousands of family, friends, co-workers and other supporters awaited them with music, cheers, cameras and home-made signs of thanks.

The throng of runners and walkers taking part in the DCC 5K, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blaring from the loudspeakers for inspiration, traveled a 3.1-mile route that began and ended at the stadium.

Most of the participants in the DCC, which has raised more than $16 million for Sylvester since its start seven years ago, have experienced cancer first-hand, either as a survivor or as the family member or friend of someone who was lost to the disease. And every year they show that generosity and determination know no age limits.

Ninety-three-year-old Ethel Kapnek’s involvement with Sylvester started before anyone in her family had cancer. But since she joined The Pap Corps, Champions for Cancer Research soon after moving to South Florida 30 years ago, her family has been devastated by cancer across three generations.

“My husband had prostate cancer and was told he had 10 years to live — he lasted 14,” she said while waiting for the 5K walk to start. “My son had lymphoma at age 53.”

Kapnek’s grandson, Dan Zasloff, who walked with her Saturday morning, was only 13 when he lost his father to lung cancer. Zasloff lives in Seattle now, and his wife, Eden, is battling a brain tumor. She is doing well, he said, even taking tap dancing lessons during her chemo treatment.

“My grandmother has been my inspiration to be here,” Zasloff said. “Her involvement in The Pap Corps long pre-dates my wife’s diagnosis.” Zasloff’s wife, who works in cancer research, talked to physicians all over the country — including at Sylvester — when she was diagnosed.

“I would do anything for Sylvester,” Kapnek said. “A friend of mine facing a cancer diagnosis was told she would have to lose her leg, but she came to Sylvester and now is doing fine.”

Kapnek got her daughter, Judith Zasloff Lakind, Dan Zasloff’s mother, involved in raising money for Sylvester. They proudly announced that they had raised more than $3,000 for the DCC, and their team Saturday morning included Lakind and her husband, Paul. Paul Lakind lost his first wife to cancer, and his brother had a brain tumor.

“Cancer has always been part of our family,” Dan Zasloff said. “The silver lining of all that is we’re a very healthy family otherwise — we eat well and exercise and don’t have diabetes or heart disease.”

His grandmother, who still works out three days a week, is a testament to the value of that emphasis on health. And she can’t say enough about how much she appreciates Sylvester.

“As long as I can, I’m going to work against cancer,” she said. “I know how much Sylvester does for us.”

Inside the stadium, Linda Raymond and her husband, Frank Raymond, stood near the cycling finish line holding a large sign of encouragement featuring two photographs — one of her late former husband, Charles Maxey, who died of brain cancer six years ago, and the other of their son, Matthew Maxey, who was riding in the DCC for the sixth time in honor of his father.

Matthew, a chemist at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a company that makes equipment used in cancer research, including at Sylvester, completed the 25-mile Ft. Lauderdale Ride with a big smile and pronounced it “a perfect day.”

First-timers Anna and Chris Shinners, who described themselves as “casual runners,” were among the earliest finishers in the 5K. Both work at Breakthru Beverage, one of the DCC sponsors, and their corporate involvement encouraged them to participate on a personal level.

“It’s a great cause, and the music really keeps you going,” said Chris. When an observer noted that Anna had crossed the finish line at a hard run, he added proudly, “She was a pole vaulter in college, and today she’s the mother of two.”

Many members of UM medical leadership and faculty also took part.

“This is a day when the entire South Florida community comes together to work for a cure for cancer,” Steven M. Altschuler, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs and CEO of the University of Miami Health System, said after completing the 5K walk. “Cancer touches everyone’s lives in some way — mothers, fathers, children, friends — and this day is quite moving. On the walk I talked with some of our scientists. They are truly inspired by the dedication and the money we’ve raised for cancer research.”

One of the scientists walking with Altschuler was Ashok K. Saluja, Ph.D., director of the Sylvester Pancreatic Research Institute and a first-time DCC participant, who pronounced the whole day “an amazing experience.”

Omaida C. Velazquez, M.D., professor and chair of the DeWitt Daughtry Family Department of Surgery, walked with her husband and daughter. “What impressed me was how people of all ages took part,” she said. “We also had many faculty members — even visiting faculty. Sadly, we had a lot of souls to walk for.”

Carl I. Schulman, M.D., M.S.P.H., Ph.D., a trauma surgeon who directs the William Lehman Injury Research Center, was one of several clinical faculty who found the day would put both muscles and medical skills to work.

“I was behind two crashes in the first three miles,” said Schulman, who rode the 35-mile Miami Ride. “I stopped, attended to the cyclists, then continued the ride.” A regular cyclist outside of the DCC, he said he was impressed by how many people lined the side of the road to cheer them on.

Another faculty member, Sylvester Associate Director Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., took part in DCC for the fourth year, riding the 35-mile Miami Ride with her husband, David H. Kerman, M.D., assistant professor of clinical medicine, and Nipun Merchant, M.D., Sylvester’s chief surgical officer.

“DCC makes me exceptionally proud of all that Sylvester is and all that we can be for our South Florida community,” she said. “Today we witnessed a collective commitment to Sylvester, and it reinforces why I do what I do, and inspires me to be a better leader, scientist, and advocate.”

The story of DCC’s success has spread far beyond South Florida, attracting those who would like to duplicate it in their own area. Mat Warner, who oversees premium sales and service for the Philadelphia Eagles, ran the 5K with some colleagues because the team is considering sponsoring a similar event. “It’s great to support such a wonderful cause,” Warner said soon after he crossed the finish line. “But it’s a little warm — we left 23 degrees!”

By early afternoon, virtually all of the cyclists had completed their long rides, the sun had moved across the sky, putting most of the stadium in the shade, and a large secondary audience was gathering to hear live music.

“What an amazing day!” Sylvester Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., said to the stadium crowd after finishing the 100-mile ride. “I can’t tell you how special it is to be part of this event. I feel a great sense of accomplishment, particularly when I think about what we’re doing for the community. This allows us to bring life-changing cancer care to you. We talk a lot about things like precision medicine and immunotherapy. What they mean is that now more than ever we give people their life back.”

Rider, cancer survivor and Sylvester volunteer Camille Moses kicked off the post-event concert by Counting Crows with a heartfelt expression of gratitude.

“Thank you, cancer fighters!” she called out to the audience. “Because of you, I’m alive!”

A gallery of photos from DCC VII is available here.

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