Honoring Mary and Fighting Glioblastoma
Some people turn tragedy into opportunity. Bill Park is one such individual. In 2012, his beloved wife, Mary, died after a devastatingly short three weeks between a diagnosis of glioblastoma and her death. Only 63 years old when she passed away, the mother of two grown sons–Bill and Doug–did not get the opportunity to meet her grandchildren who were born in the years since.
Inspiration: Let’s Start a Road Race and Educational Event
Glioblastoma–a type of brain cancer–is a particularly cruel disease, with few available therapies, an often short survival period, and no known cure. In order to move the needle on imperative research, Bill decided that he wanted to find a way to get funds to those whose research held promise. After being inspired by Old North Church Pastor Dennis Calhoun, Park created Miles for Mary, an annual 5k run/walk to raise money for necessary research. He also organized a connected annual event that takes place in the weeks following the race; it includes a dinner and presentation meant to enhance people’s understanding of glioblastoma and the pressing need for research funds.
Important Research Taking Place in our Backyard
Most of the complexities of glioblastoma require “inside-baseball” knowledge. But lay people who are unfortunate enough to cross paths with the disease understand that one of the major impediments to treatment involve the blood-brain barrier. “The brain does such a good job protecting itself from poison,” Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner–a decorated clinical neuro-oncologist with Massachusetts General Hospital–tells Marblehead Beacon. And because chemotherapy is essentially a poison, it is not particularly effective in treating brain cancer.
While Gerstner did not treat Mary, in 2013 she became acquainted with Park and his desire to raise research funds through Miles for Mary. Since that time Gerstner has come out to speak at an annual dinner that takes place every fall in Marblehead at either Tedesco Country Club or the Eastern Yacht Club (EYC). This year’s will be held at the EYC, and Gerstner will present an overview of her research, the current state of treatment options, and a discussion of possibly promising therapeutics and tools in the arenas of immunotherapy and imaging–two areas on which her clinical work focuses.
One of the first ever cell-therapy clinical trials for brain tumors is currently underway at MGH, with Gerstner serving as one of its lead investigators. A simple way of describing immunotherapy in such cases, she says, is that a person’s own white blood cells are removed, then are put back in after being re-engineered to attack a tumor by waking up the person’s own immune system. Though in its early stages, this particular Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR-T) cell therapy clinical trial shows some promise.
The Road Race
Park had never organized a large fundraiser, much less one that involved a road race. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Park, referring to the administrative and logistical challenges of starting up a philanthropic effort involving a road race. “Police, porta potties, routes, going to the Select Board, Parks and Rec; I basically stumbled my way through,” with the help of a family member who is an avid runner, he adds.
In the end, they’d set up a USATF-certified 5K road race that begins and ends at Devereux Beach, circling Marblehead Neck for its route. “There actually aren’t that many road races in the area,” says Park, who understands that for some, the race is about running, for others about fundraising, and for some about both. That is where Nate Walton, a friend of Park, comes in. Several years ago, Walton–also a Marblehead resident–had been looking to participate in a nearby road race. He found Miles for Mary and decided to reach out to Park to discuss the group. “I had a high school friend die from brain cancer,” says Walton, and for that reason in particular, he connected with the cause. The two got together for coffee and from that point, Walton began helping Park with the annual effort.
Dinner and a Discussion With Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner
One of the most notable components of Miles for Mary is that in addition to the road race, the group holds a dinner at which Dr. Gerstner gives a presentation. Gerstner’s work to advance possible therapies for glioblastoma and other cancers that metastasize to the brain shows promise, and she has spoken at the dinner every year since the birth of Miles for Mary.
While Gerstner leans heavily on large grants for her research, funds from Miles for Mary, while more modest than, say, an National Institute of Health grant, offer her something especially helpful. “Most large grants come with a lot of restrictions,” says Gerstner. With Miles for Mary funds, she has more flexibility, fewer line items, and less bureaucracy to contend with. For instance, she notes, “if we need another grad student or more MRIs” in order to complete steps in the research, these funds can make that happen. And in the last nine years, Miles for Mary’s philanthropy has passed along approximately a half a million dollars.
Bill Park looks back with emotion on his 35 years of marriage to Mary. “She was an incredible mother and wife,” he says. The two met in Western New York in the 1970s, and after she spent some time on Beacon Hill, they got married and moved to where he’d been living: Marblehead. Raising her two boys, sailing, playing tennis and golf, and watching college football and basketball were some of Mary’s favorite things to do. Though her three grandchildren were born after her death, “I know she’s looking down on them,” Park says.
To this day, a decade after her death, Mary’s close friends and their husbands gather in Park’s great room Wednesday afternoons, where they play cribbage and spend time together. “They’re also very supportive of Miles for Mary,” notes Park.
How to Donate or Participate
This year’s road race will be held on Saturday, October 15, 2022, and will start and end at Devereux Beach in Marblehead. Each participant will receive a t-shirt; there will be all-around prizes as well as prizes for age groups. All runners and walkers ages 8 and younger will receive a ribbon. Runners and walkers are welcome to form teams. Details may be found here.
Monday, November 7, 2022, Dr. Elizabeth Gerstner will make a presentation at a dinner fundraiser being held at the EYC. Tickets for the event are $50 per person. Details may be found here.
For those interested in donating to the cause, contributions automatically route through MGH and are tax-deductible. Details may be found here.