Honoring a brother’s legacy through the Jimmy Fund Walk

In Celebration of Mother’s Day, Jimmy Fund Walk participant Laura Zaks shares the story of her brother Todd Schwartz and how she keeps his memory alive, especially for her three children, who will never get to meet their uncle.

My brother, Todd Schwartz, was a teenager when he was diagnosed with cancer. It was the first time any of us had heard the word “rhabdomyosarcoma.” We didn’t know what we could do to help. We weren’t doctors or nurses. We didn’t have magical answers to make his cancer go away.

But we could walk. We could raise awareness while we raised money to support those who ultimately kept Todd with us two years longer than we initially thought we had. 

My mom, Janet Schwartz, started our team, Team Todd, in the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk soon after Todd was diagnosed. He was able to stand at different points along the route, including the finish line in Boston, to cheer on my mom in her first Walk. Todd died in 2002, but we remain committed to continuing his fight against cancer. Team Todd grows stronger and stronger every year. 

On this Mother’s Day, as with each Mother’s Day before it, I honor my mom, who is the strongest woman I will ever know. When Todd was first diagnosed, my sister Amy and I felt like we should slip into the background so our parents could put all their energy into supporting Todd. But my mom instantly noticed what we were doing and said to us, “I have three children and you are all important.” She and my dad have always inspired me to enjoy the small moments with my kids, to celebrate the milestones, and to always take a step back to see the bright side in every situation. 

We often say that my mom and Todd shared a brain so it’s no surprise that, just like Todd would do, she continues to help us see the silver lining of our family’s story. It means the world to us to be able to take our experience and use it to support others.

The Jimmy Fund Walk allows me to continue sharing Todd’s story with others, but it also allows people the opportunity to share stories about Todd with me. We are able to keep Todd’s spirit alive and, hopefully, provide support to those who are facing cancer today. 

It’s been 20 years since we lost Todd, and there have been truly remarkable developments in cancer research, treatment options, and overall care. Dana-Farber is at the forefront. The Walk is one way I can do my part to keep the incredible Dana-Farber momentum going. Kids like Todd are now able to see cancer in the rearview mirror and go on to live full and normal lives. 

In those same 20 years, so much has changed in my own life. I went from living in another city, away from Boston, to returning to the community I know and love, finding the love of my life, and now raising our three children. As much as I walk to keep my own memories of Todd alive, I walk for the brother-in-law my husband never got to meet and the uncle my kids would have adored beyond words. 

I will forever wish Todd could be here. He had so many more memories to create with us. Supporting Dana-Farber means believing, with all my heart, that one day, we will defeat cancer and keep more families whole for years to come. 

Long before becoming a mom, I knew it would be important to me to find ways to ensure that Todd was a part of my kids’ lives. Sharing the Walk with them has been an important part of carrying on Todd’s legacy of doing good for others, having fun, and always putting family first. Becoming parents years after Todd died means that Adam and I consciously choose to share Todd’s story with people who didn’t know him. We have been blessed with friends, neighbors, and educators who want to support our family and the cause that means so much to us, as we find ways to bring his spirit to our community. 

I will never forget when our oldest child, who is named after his uncle Todd, organized a bake sale in pre-kindergarten as a Walk fundraiser. He really wanted to be a Young Pacesetter! He was five years old, and he came up with a plan that his teachers and classmates completely rallied behind. Seeing how proud he was to bring his friends into this cause was so impactful that, though he is now in 2nd grade, our beloved preschool continues to support Team Todd each year. 

Walking alongside my three children in the Walk each year is bittersweet because I’m so proud of what our family does in Todd’s memory while also wishing we could be doing the Walk with Todd. I wish his story had a different ending. But I know that, together, we are changing the ending for other families and other kids like Todd.

Growing up in a family of three kids, and now raising a family with three kids, is such an incredible experience. As I watch them grow and change, I see parts of Todd’s personality in each of them. My sister, Amy, and I often have those moments where we simultaneously notice a trait or mannerism in one of my kids that is something we loved about our brother. Having these reminders of Todd in this next generation of our family always makes us feel so lucky to have had our brother for 19 years. As Todd’s high school yearbook quote perfectly stated, “Family is everything.” The Jimmy Fund is family to us as much today as on the day Todd was diagnosed.

By Laura Zaks

On Sunday, October 2, Laura and Team Todd will once again take part in the Jimmy Fund Walk in memory of Todd.  

To learn more about the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk presented by Hyundai, visit www.jimmyfundwalk.org. Your efforts will support The Dana-Farber Campaign, our ambitious, multi-year fundraising effort to prevent, treat, and defy cancer. The Dana-Farber Campaign will accelerate the Institute’s strategic priorities by supporting revolutionary science, extraordinary care, and exceptional expertise. As a community, we have the power to create a more hopeful, cancer-free future—in Boston and around the world. Together, we can defy cancer at every turn. Learn more about The Dana-Farber Campaign and how you can get involved at DefyCancer.org.