I’m a charity runner for the American Cancer Society. I’m also a committee member for the Chicago ACS DetermiNation Team. Because of my fundraising and committee work I hear a lot of stories. Cancer stories. Some uplifting. Some not. But every once in awhile a story comes along that sticks with me for a few days. Sometimes a few weeks. I think about it while I run, on my way to work or when I’m lying in bed at night.
I first heard this story at the DetermiNation Pre-Marathon dinner two nights before this years’ Chicago Marathon. The keynote speaker was introduced as a dentist from Gurnee, IL. His name was Ira Shapira. He would be running his first marathon in two days. He was 62 years old.
Roughly 450 DetermiNation athletes, their families and ACS staff watched as he made his way to the podium. He pulled out a few notes and spoke…
Hi. My name is Ira Shapira. I’m 62 years old and I began running this year for the first time since 1978 the year my daughter and first child Rachel was born. This is my first marathon and I am running it in memory of my best friend, my wife Elise, who passed away last year after battling both breast and ovarian cancer for over 20 years. I also run for Elise’s mother and grandmother, and my own mother, all of whom battled breast cancer. For my grandfather, shared a duplex with my family and was my best friend until his passing from lung cancer when I was 11 years old. Finally, I also run for me. I am also a cancer survivor – I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and went through surgical treatment 5 years ago. At the time, Elise insisted that cancer was her disease and I had no business getting it.
I never planned on running a marathon. The first six weeks after losing Elise I lived on Bourbon and Jack Daniels became my closest friend and confidant. Then Billy, my son came to me and told me he couldn’t bear losing both of us. This was a wake-up call and I decided to run a marathon and put aside the bourbon (for the most part) and to run the marathon. My first run had modest goals, merely to go around the block once but this terrible problem occurred less than 100 yards into my first run, I hit the wall and had no idea how to get back home. Two weeks later I had surgery for a torn meniscus in my right knee. I have now done a 20 mile training run and have lost over 50 pounds in preparation for the marathon. I want to give a very special thank you to Billy who has been my team leader, my coach, the leader of my pep squad and major source inspiration throughout my training.
I was only 20 years old when Elise and I first got together. Barely more than children ourselves, we built a life together for over 40 years, two thirds of my life. We were married for over 37 years. Elise always lived life her way while battling cancer. For 20 years, she redefined normal for herself and her family and for everyone who was lucky enough to share her life. Two weeks before she passed our son Billy ran the marathon in her honor and it was very special to her. I will run the marathon this year alongside Billy in Elise’s memory.
Elise maintained a relentlessly positive attitude. She loved her life, her family and her many friends. Regardless of her own struggles, Elise was devoted to caring for all those in her life. With her easy smile and light heart, she provided comfort in a shoulder to cry on or just an ear to listen. To know Elise was to know that you were loved. Her laugh brought joy to all who could hear. Those who knew her well could recognize her distinct laugh no matter how large the crowd. Our daughter, Rachel, worked as a stage manager here in Chicago and could pick out Elise’s laugh in a theatre full of people, from her perch in the sound booth.
Elise was a magnet for babies and children who adored her, as well as teenagers who found in Elise an adult they actually wanted to spend time with. She had a less than perfect sense of direction and would march 180 degrees in the wrong direction with such confidence that everyone followed even when they knew better. Of course, she always insisted she wasn’t lost, only misplaced.
We celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary 4 months before her passing. Elise was my soul mate, my lover, my confidant, my best friend and my biggest supporter. I could accomplish anything when she was with me because she never ceased to inspire. For the 20 years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer we decided not to save for retirement but to start our retirement immediately. We went on several trips each year whether we could afford them or not. The feeling of mortality became very real for us. We traveled the world together treating every year as if it might be the last. We loved our travels and relished the return to our lives at home after each trip.
Elise lived to see Billy marry Stephanie and Rachel marry Danny. She loved all of four of them dearly. Elise reveled in our granddaughter Abby but was so sad knowing that Abby would not remember her. Shortly before she died she made sure that everyone knew she had “No Regrets.” This was a priceless gift she gave us all. She lived her life fully, for herself, for me, for our children Billy and Rachel, and for our friends and families.
Many of you may be all too familiar with the BRCA genes. Elise carried a mutation in BRCA1 that predisposed her to breast and ovarian cancer. She likely inherited this mutation from her mother, and her mother’s mother. Following her initial treatment for ovarian cancer, Elise was the first member of the family to have genetic testing. After she tested positive, Rachel and Billy were also tested. Billy carries no mutation, meaning that he is not at increased risk for prostate, breast, or other cancers. Importantly this also gives him and Stephanie the peace of mind that their beautiful daughter, Abby, is not at risk. Rachel tested positive, and has since not only taken steps to reduce her own risk of cancer, but to help others from families like ours. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Genetic Counseling at Johns Hopkins University and the NIH and is now an Intern at the Lombardi Cancer Center at Georgetown University.
The theme of this dinner is “in the moment” I tried for months to write my page without success and then in July I saw Man of La Mancha. I woke the next morning and at 3:25AM I wrote my page. The third line of the Impossible Dream was “To Bear, the Unbearable sorrow” The next line was “To Run, Where the brave dare not go” . I made the Impossible Dream my theme song that ran thru my head when I ran. That impossible dream is beating cancer…..the unbeatable foe and that must be our quest.
The hardest part, for me in training for the marathon is knowing that when I cross the finish line I will not be greeted by Elise’s smile or laugh nor will I hear her telling me that she is proud of me. But she would be.
It is extremely important to me to thank everyone here, runners and their support team for joining The Determination team to raise money for the American Cancer Society. We are all trying to Dream the Impossible Dream and beat cancer for ourselves and our loved ones.
Ira Shapira crossed the finish line in 5:54:46…and I am certain Elise would be very proud.