Midway through the Go for the Gold 5K, Heather vanKoeverden and her daughter, Ana, saw a sign showing how far they'd come. But this was no ordinary mile marker. It was a poster featuring a photo of Heather holding Ana some nine years earlier, when Ana was just 3 years old and newly diagnosed with a brain tumor. "The best thing in life to hold onto," read the poster, "is each other."
"Nine years ago, we had no idea if today would ever be here," Heather tells us. Seeing that sign, and all it represented, "was a powerful moment in a mama's heart."
It was one of many powerful moments at the race/fundraiser for Brighter Tomorrows, a nonprofit that helps families affected by childhood cancer. Another moving moment: seeing a team of pediatric brain tumor survivors and their supporters, including Ana and Heather, cross the finish line. Dubbed "Brighter Brains," the team was the brainchild (ahem) of Gesina Keating, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at Mayo Clinic who started the team in part to highlight the resiliency of her patients.
"When I say that I take care of children with brain tumors, many people say, 'How do you do it? It must be so sad,'" Dr. Keating says. And while she readily acknowledges that "a brain tumor in childhood is a daunting diagnosis," Dr. Keating tells us that the children she cares for "can defy expectations in so many ways. One thing that inspired getting this group together was to show how well our brain tumor survivors survive."
One way to demonstrate that, Dr. Keating thought, would be to get a group of survivors together to run a race. The effort would also encourage exercise, which research has shown benefits brains as well as bodies. In fact, Dr. Keating tells us that regular cardiovascular exercise has been "prescribed" to "enhance cognitive function in our brain tumor survivors."
On a beautiful July day, the Brighter Brains team hit the starting line for its first race together. The group included Isaiah Eggebrecht, who was given just a 10 percent chance of survival when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age two. Today, the 19-year-old is starting his second year of college — and narrowly missed earning a medal at the race.
Isaiah's mother, Ann Eggebrecht, was on hand to cheer her son's efforts, an experience she calls "humbling" and "bittersweet." While her heart went out to those families with children going through treatment, it leapt to see her son running. "I had this big joyful smile on my face," Ann, a clinical laboratory technologist in Transfusion Medicine at Mayo Clinic, tells us. "It was really neat to have a group that recognized this particular set of survivors."
Dr. Keating tells us she hopes to grow the Brighter Brains' ranks, and to see the group enter more races together. You can email her at email@example.com to learn more. Then race on over and leave a comment below before using the social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.