If determination had an image, it would be of a cancer patient still smiling in spite of enduring harsh treatments that don’t come with a guarantee of success. Behind them would likely be family and friends in their Jimmy Fund Walk shirts, raising funds for research and taking steps they hope will one day lead to a cure.
Brenda Azure and her daughters Sienna and Alexa know that walk well, for they’ve completed the Jimmy Fund Walk twice and are preparing for a third, this one, like the last, in honor of Sienna and Alexa’s father and Brenda’s former husband, Darrell, who succumbed to glioblastoma in 2019.
Though divorced, the family remained close, especially during his treatment, which necessitated two brain surgeries and radiation.
“That was our first, in 2018,” said Brenda. “It was something that was really important to him as he was going through his battle. He had two brain surgeries, had worn a radiation cap for a long time, toting the little bag with the battery, hoping there would be a way for him to extend his life.”
Sadly, not long after his second brain surgery and only days before the 2018 walk, Brenda sensed an issue while speaking with Darrell over the phone. When she went to check on him, she found him confused. They soon learned that the tumor had returned for the third time.
“He got discharged the day before the walk,” Brenda said. “He got up the next morning and even though he was very weak, he, my mom, my sister, my nephew, we all walked together.”
“He always made me laugh,” said Sienna. “He had a hard time in his childhood and wasn’t perfect, but he tried the best he could with what he knew. Even though he wasn’t right all the time, he’d just keep trying.”
Sienna said when her father was ill, he’d apologize to people and forgave those with whom he’d struggled.
“That showed that kind of person he was deep down,” she said.
Throughout the 2018 walk, Darrell kept checking his phone, raising funds for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute his top priority.
“It was a huge moment for us to be holding his hand and helping him get to the finish line,” Brenda said. “When he did that last surgery, he was trying something experimental.”
Brenda explained that Darrell knew it likely wouldn’t help him but hoped it would help someone else through the knowledge gained by medical professionals.
“He just wanted to know that maybe someday he would be able to help another son, another father, or another brother in the future so their families wouldn’t have to experience the same pain,” she said.
Brenda is grateful for the legacy Darrell left behind but acknowledges its bittersweetness.
“I think he definitely set an example for the girls during the last 18 months after his diagnosis,” she said. “He had hope. He continued to live. He was obviously sad that his life was going to end and that he wouldn’t be there for the girls, but he definitely gave them the gift of continuing to live and making the best of his situation.
Alexa, in eighth grade at MRHS, said her father's commitment to the walk, regardless of how poorly he might have been feeling, is what inspires her to keep walking.
“It was important to Daddy and it helps bring awareness and raise money to help other people, like Bubi (Trudi) and Bumper (Terry),” she said. “Maybe someday there will be a cure so other families don’t have to go through this.
She added that she admires her father, Trudi, and Terry for their courage.
“They were brave and strong through the challenges that life gave them,” Alexa said. “They showed me what true strength was as they put a smile on their faces in the toughest of times.”
Darrell wasn’t the only person the Azure women lost to the insidious disease. Adding to the heartbreak, a close family friend, Trudi Cronin, was doing her best to fight lymphoma, also at Dana-Farber. She and her husband Terry were like grandparents to Sienna and Alexa, supporting them through the grief of losing their father. Unfathomably, Terry was also diagnosed with cancer during his wife’s illness, also becoming a patient of Dana-Farber before both passed away within two weeks of one another.
For Sienna, a sophomore at Nauset Regional High School, the mark that cancer has left on her young life has been deep. Along with her father and family friends, her best friend’s mother has breast cancer and the younger brother of another, Jesse Nash, died of neuroblastoma.
“Everyone is affected by cancer,” she said.
In honor of Darrell, Trudi, Terry, and countless others impacted by cancer, Brenda, Sienna, and Alexa have made it a personal commitment to take part in the annual walk, this year taking on a new modality under the pandemic. Rather than a full-on walk along the Boston Marathon course, participants are logging miles locally, and still raising important funds. It is what those funds can do that inspires Sienna.
“You’re really just helping everybody,” she said. “Dana-Farber was so good to my dad. Anything I can do to help them raise money in the hope that one day cancer will be gone, it feels like a lot.”
“They were very supportive not just to Darrell but to all of us,” said Brenda. “We had nurses talking on the phone with us all the time, counselors that were supportive. It’s a huge impact to the patient, and the families suffer, too.”
Brenda said Trudi also loved her team at Dana-Farber.
“She regarded them so highly,” said Brenda. “If we can help honor them and support Dana-Farber and prevent other families from feeling this pain, we will.”
Amy McHugh knows well the importance of the Jimmy Fund Walk, and the fears that come with having a child diagnosed with cancer. In 2009, her daughter, Emily, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, with a tumor the size of a softball growing on an adrenal gland. At the age of 4, Emily underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, an eight-hour surgery to remove the tumor, and then had two back-to-back stem cell transplants, followed by 21 rounds of radiation, as well as six months of experimental antibody therapy, all at Dana-Farber.
“She was in the hospital for treatment and she and my husband watched the walkers down below,” said Amy. “We said, ‘Next year we’ll be down there walking.’”
In 2010, the family took to the course for the first time, starting with a team of only close friends, family members, and Emily’s oncologist.
“Every year it’s grown,” said Amy. “Five years ago, we had more than 100 walkers.”
Now, Emily is 15 and a sophomore at Monomoy Regional High School, with a sky-high quality of life.
“She plays soccer. She plays lacrosse. She does everything most kids do,” said Amy. “She’s little but she’s fast and she’s fierce.”
For the 2020 walk, Amy, Emily, and a group of 40 supporters will be walking on Oct. 4, determined to continue raising funds for Dana-Farber. That they get to walk in Chatham, Amy said, is a thrill.
“I’m psyched it’s here,” Amy said. “Some people love going up to Boston to do it, but some people don’t. I don’t think you can get a more beautiful team than what we have here.”
While the fundraising aspect is important to the McHugh family, of greater importance has been raising awareness about neuroblastoma.
“We’re very good friends with the Nashes,” Amy said. “When Jesse was diagnosed, it was very personal. We walk for them and to show my kids that this is so much bigger than them. Yes, we made it through, and we need to help others now. To give them hope.”
In 2014, Jaime Dalmau’s best friend reached out and told her she wanted to take part in the Jimmy Fund Walk. Now embarking on her seventh year, Dalmau remains stalwart about participating.
“My motivation for the most part is the research side of Dana-Farber,” she said. “As a kid, when I was in seventh grade, I lost my grandfather to cancer.”
Dalmau said that in 1988, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence as treatments hadn’t progressed.
“I don’t want another seventh grader to not have a future with their grandparent,” she said.
Dalmau said the in-person event is uplifting and also well organized, with stellar volunteers and an amazing number of people cheering the walkers on. She said she’ll miss that level of energy during the virtual walk.
“You don’t realize how much they give you throughout the marathon until you have to do it on your own,” she said.
Rather than traverse the Boston Marathon route, Dalmau and her team will be trekking the bicycle trail along the Cape Cod Canal. She issued a reminder that there’s still time to register and participate.
“It’s rewarding. What you feel like you’ve accomplished when you’re finished is something that you’ve never experienced before,” Dalmau said. “I think that is one of the reasons why people come back year after year. You know what you did, and you know why you did it, and in the grand scheme of things, walking 26 miles is not difficult compared to dealing with having cancer.”
For each walker recording miles, the event will be bittersweet, but Sienna Azure offers perspective.
“I feel like when people say someone lost their battle with cancer, I feel like even though someone died, they won,” she said. “When you’re faced with something so hard, knowing your life’s going to end, and you keep going and try each day, you didn’t lose. You won. You tried. You fought. I don’t think that’s losing.”
To make a donation, visit danafarber.jimmyfund.org and click on “give” at the top of the page.