Social worker’s sweat will help fight blood cancer
By Kim Howard
The furthest Williston resident Michelle Pierce had run before August was eight miles.
Then she signed up to do her first marathon in January to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
As a past relay participant in the Vermont City Marathon, Pierce had seen runners wearing t-shirts supporting the organization which works to find cures for blood cancers — leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma.
“I just have always thought to myself that if I ever run a marathon I’m gonna do it for this cause,” said Pierce, 35, in a recent interview. “Because I could never run a marathon just for me. I had to have a mission and a reason to do one.”
Pierce lives off of River Cove Road with her husband of six years and their two toddlers. The Pierces moved to Williston five years ago because they “liked the sense of community here,” said Michelle Pierce, a Rutland native.
A colleague of Pierce’s lost her husband to lymphoma about seven years ago. Pierce also has worked with “a lot more than a handful” of people with blood cancers in her job as a social worker on the hospice and palliative care team with the Visiting Nurse Association of Chittenden and Grand Isle Counties.
“Sometimes the treatments are harder on people than the actual disease because there can be a lot of fatigue involved, nausea, and I think the fear of the unknown,” she explained of patients with blood cancers.
“I’ve seen the whole spectrum: people who are completely in despair and depressed and just can’t see how they’re gonna get through this,” Pierce elaborated. “And then I‘ve seen other people who are totally accepting.”
“The hardest is when we’re dealing with a middle aged person who has children,” Pierce said. “They need to find the way to talk to their children before they die and explain to them that they’re dying.”
These are some of the things Pierce thinks about as she prepares for the marathon. She must raise $3,500 in order to participate; she has raised $1,500 to date from family, friends, colleagues at the VNA and people through her kids’ daycare at Kids in Fitness.
There is a significant physical and time commitment as well. Pierce, who took up running for fitness six years ago, will log over 450 miles in training prior to the event at Walt Disney World in January. She gets up at 5:00 a.m. for weekday runs three or four days a week on her basement treadmill; weekend runs are with a volunteer coach for a Team in Training group.
Team in Training is an endurance sports training program for marathons, half-marathons, triathlons and 100-mile bicycle rides – all of which raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Robyn Haberman, program campaign manager for the Upstate New York/Vermont Society chapter, said that Pierce is one of about twenty Vermonters who will participate in a Team in Training event this year. The funds raised through these events make a difference to people right here in Vermont.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the research the Team in Training raised funds for,” shared Dave Cranmer of Shelburne, a volunteer patient advocate for the Society.
Cranmer was diagnosed in October 1999 with CML – chronic myeloid leukemia – a relatively rarer form of blood cancer.
“Research advances very rapidly and now people who are diagnosed with the leukemia that I had are offered much less invasive treatment than what I had to go through – and that’s just in six years,” explained Cranmer.
A significant portion of funds raised by the LLS goes to research, though the organization also supports public and professional education and services to patients and their families.
“In the last 10-15 years, survival rates have gone from almost nothing to fifty percent,” Cranmer continued.
There are other improvements. Cranmer had to travel to Boston for treatment. Now, because of research breakthroughs, more treatment is available closer to home for Vermonters, he said.
Nearly three-quarters of a million Americans currently battle blood cancers. Vermont can expect to see an estimated 300 new cases of blood cancers diagnosed in 2006, said Haberman.
Cranmer, who has been in remission for four years, supported this.
“Vermont has a significant amount of leukemia & lymphoma throughout the state,” Cranmer said. “You don’t have to go very far before you meet someone whose life has been impacted.”