D-backs to put on third annual Race Against Cancer
Organization's 5K run helps nonprofits, brings people together and creates awareness
PHOENIX -- A little more than 10 years ago, Sarah Stanford clung to life. A single mother now living in Mesa, Ariz., Stanford was diagnosed with a brain tumor called glioblastoma. That form of cancer is 99 percent fatal.
The story of her survival is a stirring one, and on Saturday she'll be among 2,000 people participating in the D-backs' third annual Race Against Cancer, a 5K jaunt through the streets of downtown Phoenix that begins and ends just off the main gate of Chase Field.
The race starts at 7:30 a.m. PT and is open for registration through dbacks.com/race. The entry fee helps Arizona nonprofit organizations provide screening, treatment and support for cancer victims. The D-backs are playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles later that day.
Stanford will be accompanied by Dr. Kris Smith, a local neurosurgeon, who helped save her life and is a huge D-backs fan. He is running in the race for the third time, this time as a member of the 27-person Barrow Brain Tumor team. The race is sponsored by the University Cancer Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital, of which the Barrow Neurological Institute is a significant portion.
Stanford said in an interview this week that she'll be walking the course along with her mother, sister, brother and sister-in-law. At 35 now, that's what she can do, and it's good enough. She said she's often walked the 5K distance -- 3.1 miles -- but never in an organized race.
"I don't run at all," said Stanford, who has a 14-year-old son. "I've walked [that distance] before, but not a lot lately. Last year, I walked three or four times a week. I've trained a little, but I know my body can take it."
When Stanford was diagnosed with the disease a decade ago, she was placed in a clinical trial at Barrow, headed by Dr. Smith. The vast majority of glioblastoma patients live fewer than 12 months after diagnosis. About 17,000 people are plagued with that type of brain tumor in the U.S. each year, Dr. Smith said in an interview, which means that only about 170 people survive for any appreciable period of time beyond the norm.
Stanford was the 30th person in a 30-person trial that included Dr. Smith's own father. After surgery, aggressive chemo and radiation therapy, she was the only one who survived. Stanford left no doubt how she feels about that.
"I feel very blessed that I survived it," Stanford said. "I feel like I survived so I could raise my son. But I feel very bad for those who go through this and don't survive it."
Baseball has had its own reckoning with this type of devastating cancer. Among those who have died from brain tumors are Michael Weiner, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association; Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter; pitchers Tug McGraw and Dan Quisenberry; coach John Vukovich; and managers Dick Howser and Johnny Oates, just to name a few.
Former Phillies and Marlins catcher Darren Daulton had surgery to remove a glioblastoma two years ago and told reporters this past Spring Training in Clearwater, Fla., that he is currently cancer-free.
"I just got an MRI this last week and I'm doing great," Daulton said. "When the doctor walks in and opens the door and he starts smiling, then everything is cool. I can do whatever I want. Everybody has been great."
Stanford knows the feeling. The trial she was accepted in was simply meant to extend a patient's life from 12 to 18 months. At the end of her treatment, an MRI revealed that the tumor was gone. It hasn't returned.
She is the outlier who far exceeded expectations, a feel-good story among all the tales of misery. But as any cancer survivor will tell you, you're only as good as your next scan or blood test, and as far as that goes, Stanford still makes her way periodically to Barrow.
"For my field, it's scan anxiety," Dr. Smith said. "They get an MRI every few months so we can take a look. My nurse practitioner, Charlotte, actually has given talks on how we can get them to cope with this, but it's almost an impossible thing not to go through, to be worried about what the next scan will show. 'The next one is going to be the recurrence, the next one is going to make everything change.'"
D-backs president Derrick Hall is among the cancer survivors who shares that experience. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer several years ago, and he had surgery only a short time before his own father passed away from pancreatic cancer. Ken Kendrick, the team's managing general partner, is also a prostate cancer survivor.
In 2013, the D-backs Race Against Cancer was born, with about 700 runners taking off from the starting line at Chase Field one February morning only hours before the annual Fan Fest. Just like on Saturday, a one-mile Banana Boat Family Fun Walk followed.
"This is not about winning the race. It's about bringing people together for the cause, creating awareness and building community. That's what it's about," said Hall, who just had a routine blood test to determine that his cancer is in check.
Hall had been doing that every three months since the surgery, and this was his first one spaced at six months. In the days before the test, his stomach churned and his pulse began to race. "Blood test anxiety," Dr. Smith would have called it. It came back negative.
"I was worried, but all is good," Hall said.
Thus, life can transpire normally for another six months. If you're fortunate, like Stanford, the months pile up, and it's suddenly 10 years. The American Cancer Society estimated that 1.66 million Americans contracted some kind of cancer in 2014, and 585,720 died. Despite all the research and medical advancements, those numbers are still remarkably consistent from year to year.
"Everybody is touched by the disease," Hall said. "Everybody knows somebody who has passed as a result of being victim of the disease. Everybody knows somebody who has it, everybody knows a survivor. It's so prevalent now."
On Saturday, Stanford will be there representing all the survivors. She's literally standing up to cancer, the only survivor from her now long-ago clinical trial.