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Marathon Inspires At MGH Childhood Cancer Program

A mural in MGH’s pediatric cancer clinic tells the story of the hospital’s marathon team, which was founded by Dr. Howard Weinstein, chief of MGH’s pediatric hematology-oncology program, in 1998. (Courtesy MGH)

A mural in MGH’s pediatric cancer clinic tells the story of the hospital’s marathon team, which was founded by Dr. Howard Weinstein, chief of MGH’s pediatric hematology-oncology program, in 1998. (Courtesy of MGH)

BOSTON — While the Boston Marathon will be the center of international attention this year, the race has always been a focal point at a local clinic for children with cancer.

For the past 16 marathons, many patients at Massachusetts General Hospital’s childhood cancer program have been paired with runners — using the race’s symbol of endurance and strength to help the children going through treatment.

Two former patients ran last year but were stopped before the finish line because of the bombings.

But they’ll return this year, determined not to let what happened last year tarnish the race.

Marathon Mural Hallway

Weinstein stops at mile 20 to hold his patient-partner, Lily. (Courtesy of MGH)

Weinstein stops at mile 20 to hold his patient-partner, Lily. (Courtesy of MGH)

The Boston Marathon has been so much a part of the treatment at MGH’s childhood cancer program that it now has what’s known as the marathon mural hallway.

“We have little footsteps and a start line for the Boston Marathon and a finish line,” said Dr. Howard Weinstein, the chief of the program who had the idea for the hallway for years.

It was completed in October. The walls are lined with all sorts of images: photos of patients and the runners they’re paired with, mementos from the pasta dinner for runners and their patient partners, replicas of some of the road signs from the eight communities runners travel through and images from mile 20 — where supporters and patients gather to cheer on Weinstein’s running team.

On the wall is a dramatic photo (above right) of Weinstein stopped at mile 20 with the name Lily written in black on his arm. He’s smiling widely as he holds Lily — the toddler tightly hugging his neck, the young girl’s missing hair a clear sign of her chemotherapy.

Dr. Howard Weinstein, founder and captain of the marathon team, with Lily, his 2012 patient-partner at the mural’s unveiling last October. (Courtesy MGH)

Weinstein, founder and captain of the marathon team, with Lily, his 2012 patient-partner at the mural’s unveiling last October. (Courtesy of MGH)

“That was my patient-partner two years ago, Lily, who was just about a year into her therapy for leukemia,” he said. “She’s now completed her therapy and will be at mile 20 again. She’s been a great inspiration. You can imagine a hug like that can get you from mile 20 to Copley.”

A Year-Round Reminder

Inspiration is what Weinstein hopes the marathon gives his patients — a symbol of tenacity, courage, dedication and the strength of the human body — all things a child needs to remember during treatment. He wants this hallway to be a year-round reminder.

“It was really to also bring to life on a daily basis how important the marathon program is to our childhood cancer program,” he said. “Also I think to be an inspiration to our patients who will be participating in future years.”

The first time one of Weinstein’s former patients ran the marathon was three years ago. Six former patients will run this year.

Last year was the first time Lindsey Beggan, 26, tried to run the Boston Marathon. Beggan, who is from Medfield but now lives in California, was diagnosed with bone cancer when she was 10 years old. It’s been in remission for years.

“Running the marathon was just an incredible experience,” she said. “Getting to mile 20 was one of the most amazing things that has ever happened — just seeing my entire family there, knowing that they all supported me.”

A few miles after reaching mile 20 last year, the MGH childhood cancer team had to stop because of the bombings. Beggan, Dr. Weinstein and the rest of the running team wandered around for about an hour before they got to a prearranged meeting place and found out exactly what happened. Luckily, no one involved with their team was hurt. Despite last year’s tragedy, Beggan is eager for another chance.

“I am excited that I get to run again and share that experience with even more people this year because everybody is so passionate about the marathon this year,” she said. “I’m just excited to run across the finish line and have that feeling of accomplishment.”

Beggan expects to experience a range of emotions crossing the finish line Monday. So does Weinstein.

“It’s unbelievable for me to be able to run side-by-side with some of my patients,” he said. “There is no way to describe that feeling. It’s something that keeps me going every day when I do my work in terms of treating childhood cancer. For me, it’s one of the most important days of the year.”

And both of them they say nothing that happened last year is going to change that.

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