So Many Miles, so Much Good
TEWKSBURY -- The annual Meghan McCarthy 5K Road Race has long been an occasion to honor and remember a girl who made the most of her short life and inspired those around her to help others overcome what she could not.
It’s the meaning behind the bright pink dragonfly emblazoned on the race shirts participants wear, a symbol of how she’s transformed their lives, her indelible mark on the world. To this day, when her closest friends see a dragonfly, they feel she is near.
For 10 years, people from Tewksbury and beyond have gathered for the event to raise money for pediatric brain cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Between the race, the Flying Henrys (Meghan’s Pan-Mass Challenge Pedal Partner in raising money for Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund), and other local groups’ efforts, about $800,000 has been raised for cancer research in Meghan’s name since 2009.
On Sunday, the 10th and final race was especially emotional, drawing family and friends from all over to run or walk in Meghan’s memory one last time.
“All the time Meghan was sick, we always prayed for a miracle,” said grandfather Andre Paquette, of Laconia, N.H. “We finally realized that she was the miracle.”
Given only eight weeks to live when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma in June 2007 at 14 years old, Meghan would fight for another 2 1/2 years before the inoperable brain tumor ultimately claimed her life in January 2010 at 17.
“From the second she was diagnosed, not once did she ever say to me, ‘Why did this happen to me?’” said Meghan’s mother, Lee McCarthy.
Throughout her treatment at Dana-Farber, Meghan would look after and entertain other children at the hospital, allowing their parents a moment to have a meal, Paquette said.
She also continued to go to school, maintain honor-roll grades, play field hockey and basketball -- and helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for cancer research.
“She really demonstrated what it meant to be ‘Tewksbury Tough,’” said family friend Suzanne Russell, referencing a phrase used by Meghan’s high school teammates.
Seeing Meghan every day at Tewksbury Memorial High School and inspired by her courage, classmate Robbie Wallace knew he had to do something. With a group of friends, they organized the first road race, held just two months after her death.
It grew into something more than Wallace and friend Jerry Etienne ever imagined.
Wallace, 26, of Nashua, said he knew it wouldn’t last forever, but he will miss coming back for the race.
“Meghan had such a strong spirit, and you get to feel that when you come here,” he said, his voice wavering.
“It’s 10 years later and she can still bring this group of people together, and bring in new people every year,” said Etienne, 26, of Woburn. “Not everybody can say that they’ve done that.”
Wallace and Etienne organized the race for two years, and then Kelli Sugrue ran it for another two. Since then, Debbie Sugrue, Kelli Sugrue’s mother and a longtime friend of McCarthy, has served as race director.
“Meghan changed my life,” Debbie Sugrue said. “She lived life to the fullest. She made us all realize what life is about.”
Assisting Sugrue was Sherry Iuliano, of Wilmington, a nurse practitioner in neurosurgery at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and a fellow member of the Flying Henrys. A lymphoma survivor who is 17 years cancer-free, Iuliano was the one who encouraged the Flying Henrys to partner with a cancer patient, which is how they were connected with Meghan.
“It seemed like it was just meant to be,” McCarthy said.
The inspiration Meghan has provided ranges wide and far.
Family friend Sue Hogan said her youngest daughter, Sarah, 25, is now a clinical research nurse for brain cancer at Dana-Farber.
Lindsey (Tucker) Cahill, 28, of Dracut, grew up with Meghan’s family in Tewksbury and had the same team of doctors as Meghan when she fought brain cancer as a child. Diagnosed with medulloblastoma at age 7, Cahill has been cancer-free since age 9.
She said she has participated in the race each of its 10 years -- as well as many other events to raise money for cancer research -- because she feels its important for her journey to be part of others’ treatment.
“Whenever there’s somebody who hasn’t made it, I feel like it’s my obligation to live out the life they didn’t get,” Cahill said, tears coming to her eyes. “That’s how I need to live from now on.”
For Meghan’s closest friends, coming back each year to honor her has been an “uplifting” experience, said Calie Lyons, 27.
“I feel like some people don’t get to relive their friends’ memories like we get to live Meg’s,” said Jess Sullivan, 26, of Sandown, N.H.
Sullivan and Lauren Scheipers, 26, were among those who donated past race and other meaningful t-shirts for a memorial quilt had made and presented to McCarthy Sunday. It included an old field hockey shirt of Meghan’s that McCarthy had given to Sullivan her senior year.
Though the race may be over, Allie Frazier, 26, said a small group will still likely walk the course once a year in her honor -- followed by their usual “cheers to Meghan.”
McCarthy said family and friends are working on other ways to raise money for cancer research in Meghan’s name. She said she envisions an annual family-friendly event that is fun for all ages and physical abilities, but nothing has been decided upon just yet.
For updates on the new fundraising efforts, follow facebook.com/MeghanMccarthyAnnualRoadRace/ .
Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.