Islander walks to raise awareness and money to fight cancer
Islander Pat Holtzman didn’t exactly set out to add race walking to her list of accomplishments. But on May 2, she and her friend, Jennifer Wheeler, will complete the 13.5-mile Cox Rhode Race — all to benefit the American Cancer Society, one of the race’s charitable partners.
“It has surprisingly become very important to me,” she said. “I’m very emotional about it.”
Holtzman will walk in honor of her friend, Ann Fitzgerald Knowles, who died of lung cancer in December, 2009.
But this race isn’t about loss for Holtzman. It’s about hope.
In the summer of 2008, she reached up to brush some hair off her neck when her hand ran across a lump.
She saw her doctor the next day.
That, she said, “was the beginning of the ride.”
The doctor said it was an enlarged lymph node, which was quickly removed and biopsied. A CAT scan and PET scan followed, and in August, Holtzman got the news that would forever change her: A diagnosis of stage-three lymphoma.
“First, you cry a lot,” she said. “The c-word really freaks people out and I was freaked out until I found the doctor who treated me. He said, ‘I can cure your cancer.’ That was a big moment.”
On Oct. 8, 2008 — her husband’s birthday — Holtzman began a course of chemotherapy, a routine she followed every other week for three months.
“Once you start treatment, everything changes,” she said. “But I’m an eternal optimist. I always thought I was going to be fine.”
Even with that optimism, Holtzman said, cancer treatment leads to some dark days.
“Chemo is cumulative,” she said. “I got mouth sores that were so bad that I was gargling with Lidocaine. And being bald wasn’t fun either. I also got a cold after my second treatment that I didn’t get rid of for six months.”
What helped her through those very dark days, she said, was the knowledge that life goes on. It was football season for her son and he also had jazz band to get to, she said.
“His schedule stayed the same,” she said. “He still needed lunch.”
While the normalcy of being a wife and mother helped, the responsibilities were also a challenge.
But friends brought her great comfort in the form of gestures big and small, Holtzman said.
“I couldn’t really visit with people, but they shopped for me and dropped dinners by,” she said. “One person took our dog for the day and another gave me a gift card to the pharmacy.”
All those gestures, Holtzman said, were a lifeline to her and her family. But cancer is scary for people and sometimes, they say and do things that they might not realize aren’t helpful, she said.
“The worst thing people do is tell you about people they know who died of cancer,” she said. “But there were a lot of little things that were huge gifts.”
Today, Holtzman’s cancer is in remission, she said.
“Every three months, I get a test,” she said. “And I forget about it in between.”
But what she never forgets are the ways her life has changed since her cancer diagnosis, she said.
“I really don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “There are a lot of silly things that get us stressed out, but there’s only so much you can do. Now, I clean a lot less and I cook a lot less.”
Another islander, 62-year-old Robert Frary, had also hoped to compete in the Cox Rhode Race – but the treatment that he’s currently undergoing for stage-four squamous cell carcinoma of the neck has forced him to scale back a bit.
“I started running later in life to honor my family,” he said. “My father died of lung disease about five years ago, my brother died of ALS two-and-a-half years ago and my mom died of breast cancer a little over a year ago. I started running marathons because they inspired me so much.”
Though he won’t be running this time, Frary said, he’ll be there on May 2.
“Cancer treatment is tough, and there’s no way I could have completed it,” he said. “But I’ll be there raising awareness. I am going to prove that cancer can slow you down, but it doesn’t have to get you down.”
Like Holtzman, Frary said cancer has changed him in ways he couldn’t have anticipated.
“It changes your perspective on so many levels in so many different ways,” he said. “It’s given me the ability to prioritize, well and quickly.”
Frary said that he hasn’t found his journey through cancer frightening, although it has been painful and demanding.
“I’ve learned the beauty of a small community – of getting a hug, a friendly handshake or a nod,” he said. “As many cancer survivors say, I’m a lucky person. I wouldn’t want to go through it again for anything, but I’m still a lucky person.”
When his recovery is complete, Frary said, he’ll start training for a marathon trifecta – he’ll run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., the Disney World Marathon in Orlando, Fla. and the National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
His family, he said, will inspire him every step of the way.
“They made – make – me so strong,” he said. “For me to beat this cancer and run three full marathons less than a year later would make them so proud.”
Holtzman said she’s “really excited” about walking in the Cox Rhode Race on behalf of her friend.
“I want to honor my friend,” she said. “And I want to make a lot of money for the American Cancer Society.”
If you’d like to support Holtzman in her race, you can donate at www.main.acsevents.org/goto/ patholtzman or mail a check payable to the American Cancer Society, c/o The Jamestown Press, 42 Narragansett Ave., Jamestown, RI 02835.