Curing Cancer One STEP at a Time

Cancer patients honored at Light the Night Walk; 1,600 attend

STORY AND PHOTOS BY DIANA BIERMAN

Laurie Walser (center) and her team, "Laurie's Red Raiders"

On the evening of Sunday, October 21, approximately 1,600 people gathered at Nyack Memorial Park to support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS)’s Westchester/Hudson Valley Chapter at their annual Light the Night Walk, honoring people battling or who’ve battled blood cancers. This was one of three walks held in both Rockland and Westchester counties.

Teams of coworkers, families and friends walked together in twilight holding illuminated balloons. White balloons symbolized survivors, red balloons were for supporters and gold were for those walking in memory of a loved one lost to a blood cancer. In addition, a remembrance ceremony, team banner contest, caregivers’ recognition and fireworks display were also part of the evening’s events.

Light the Night participants ranged from families of local survivors and patients to corporate teams. One of the honored patients this year was Laurie Walser of Airmont, NY, an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) survivor.

In September of 2009, Laurie was on her way to the Nyack Street Fair when she fell and broke her arm. She was brought to the hospital, and, during a routine blood count, doctors soon realized her platelet count was significantly low, which led to her diagnosis of AML.

The Be Positives, walking in honor of Kerry Kelemen, and also the highest fundraising team in Rockland ever

It wasn’t long after that when Laurie began undergoing chemotherapy. “Everyone had to help me do everything,” she said. “I couldn’t even open a bottle of water.” But after months of treatment, Laurie soon got her stride back, and, in April of 2010, she was deemed cancer free.

“If I hadn’t fallen, it could’ve been months since I was diagnosed,” she explained. “It was the best broken arm I’ve ever had!”

Walking with Laurie was her team called “Laurie’s Red Raiders,” a homage to her job at North Rockland School District, where she works as a position assistant. “The support of everyone is amazing,” Laurie said. “I would not be here today without the support and prayers of all my family and friends.”

The most important lesson Laurie learned during her journey is that helping others, even when you’re struggling yourself, is the most rewarding thing you can do. She was so floored by her own support system that she presented a speech on 11 ways you can help a patient, which she compiled through her own experience. She discussed things like making the patient laugh, helping around the house and the importance of simply listening.

The other honored patient was Kerry Kelemen, of Thiells, NY, who lost her battle to AML in July of 2011. At the walk were many of Kerry’s friends and family on a team called “Be Positive,” which was Kerry’s blood type—and also her motto in dealing with her diagnosis.

“She was a spitfire,” explained her sister, Tonia McGowan, walking with Be Positive, which was recognized as the highest fundraising team in Rockland ever. “She was passionate about everything she did. From work, to family and friends, to love. She wasn’t afraid to take risks.”

Tonia McGowen, Kerry Kelemen's sister, and Dennis Kelemen, Kerry's father

Kerry was diagnosed in May of 2010 on her 24th birthday. She underwent two rounds of chemo in Canada and a bone marrow transplant in New York. “[Her] rebellious spirit and willful determination helped her digest this unwanted birthday gift,” McGowan said. “Her instant positive outlook helped to guide our family in dealing with this diagnosis.”

Her loved ones were not her only supporters through her journey, however. In fact, people who didn’t even know her were touched by her spirit. When Kerry adopted her motto, “You fight for your life, because the fighter never quits; you make the most of the hand you’re dealt, because the quitter never wins,” from a Dropkick Murphy song, the band, which was her favorite, heard of her story and came to the hospital to play a concert in her room.

In addition, hockey player Adam Graves asked her to come to a game. Her Facebook page chronicling her fight for life gained more than 6,000 followers. Notes of encouragement and small gifts were always steadily delivered to her. “She touched so many people,” McGowen said.

When the transplant regrettably failed and when she was unable to get back into remission, she married her husband Damien on the Staten Island Ferry, where they had their first date. Two months later, in July of 2011, Kerry passed away in her sleep.

But Kerry’s spirit will live on, just like the rest of the loved ones commemorated at the walk. “These loved ones were an important part of our lives,” said Denise Raptoulis, LCSW, patient services manage at LLS. “Although not with us physically, their spirit and our memories of them go on to guide and inspire us in our daily lives.”

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, based in White Plains, NY, is the world’s largest voluntary health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research, education and patient services. Funds raised from the Light the Night Walk provide significant support to these programs. Last year, the three Westchester/Hudson Valley walks included 7,000 walkers who collectively raised over $887,000.