Patients and runners build unbreakable bonds through the DFMC Patient Partner program

Sasha (left) and Beth, two members of the 2024 Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge Patient Partner program.

Each year, more than 30 pediatric cancer patients from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s are paired with a member of the (DFMC) team through the DFMC . This is a special opportunity for runners to further strengthen their connection with Dana-Farber’s mission while they are fundraising and training to run 26.2 miles on behalf of all Dana-Farber patients and their families in the world-renowned Boston Marathon®. This program was established to allow runners and patients to create meaningful connections, and provide patients with a fun, positive experience outside of their day-to-day treatment and recovery protocols. Once paired through the program, runners, patients, and their families are invited to meet for in-person bonding opportunities throughout the training season, including the Meet Your Match bowling party, patient partner poster decorating party, and the DFMC Pasta Party, the official send off for the DFMC team the night before Marathon Monday. Participating patients and families are also invited to cheer on their runner, along with all DFMC and Boston Marathon runners, from Mile 25 at Kenmore Square.

Many runners find that connecting with their patient partner is the highlight of their season, as they are inspired directly by the courage, determination, and strength that the patients and families demonstrate as they navigate their individual cancer journeys. Beth Connolly, currently training for her 10th marathon with the DFMC team, is participating in the Patient Partner program for the second time this season. “The Patient Partner program is one of the most powerful components of the DFMC experience,” she shares. “I applied during my very first year with DFMC and still recall the first email that I received from my patient partner. Our commonalities in interests and thinking were astonishing, and I learned a great deal from her, despite her young age of 16. We developed a special connection, and I continued running for her via the In-Memory Program after her passing. My silent homage and dedication of miles to my first patient partner continued throughout my next seven seasons with the team, with my annual trip from Hopkinton to Boston serving as a vehicle for honoring the memory and celebration of all angels and heroes I have gathered over the years.”

In 2023, Beth was matched with Sasha, an 11-year-old patient battling Ewing sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, and the two have continued their partnership for the 2024 race as well. “I could not have imagined what the program had waiting for me in Sasha and her family,” Beth shares. “I remember our first encounter at the Meet Your Match party last year and immediately felt the light and love that the family exudes. Sasha has become my ‘why.’ She is my hero, and I do not say this lightly. She possesses confidence, beauty, and talent and has depth, wisdom, and strength that some people take a lifetime to develop, and maybe never do. I am astonished by the perseverance, hope, and commitment demonstrated by her and the beautiful circle of friends and family surrounding her.”

Beth at the 2023 B.A.A. Half Marathon®, which she ran with Dana-Farber’s team to show her support for Sasha, who was invited to kick off the race by singing the National Anthem.

Sasha and her mom, Julya, feel equally blessed to have been partnered with Beth. “Beth’s presence has been such a light in our life, bringing us closer to a community whose collective efforts fuel the fight against cancer,” they share. “This partnership extends beyond just support; it’s a powerful motivator, compelling us to rise every time we face a setback. We feel so lucky that our connection with Beth has blossomed into a cherished friendship that extends beyond the patient-partner match, and it’s a bond that means the world to us.”

Sasha and Beth (left) posing with Sasha’s parents and brother at the 2023 DFMC Meet Your Match party.

Patient families, like Sasha’s, often express how humbled they are to see the commitment and grit that DFMC runners bring to training through the cold New England winter for the race. These runners bring that same determination to raising as much as they can to support Dana-Farber’s and the ultimate mission to create a world without cancer. “Their efforts directly contribute to the advancements in treatments that have been crucial to Sasha’s journey and are a huge reason for her well-being today,” Julya says. “The fundraising makes it possible for us to fight this cancer, not just with traditional therapies, but novel clinical trial therapies knocking it out of existence.”

The relationship between Sasha, her family, and Beth is just one example of the many powerful bonds that exist between DFMC runners and Dana-Farber patient families. Many runners stay in close contact with their patient partners and families, even after they move on from the DFMC team. These connections also bring hope to future runners, that they too can make a difference by applying to be a part of the Patient Partner program for a future season.

“To those considering applying to be a patient partner runner in the future, know that your actions resonate way beyond the many miles you run,” Julya says. “Your dedication is a palpable presence in our lives, bolstering our spirits and profoundly influencing our courage in this fight. We me may be stuck in the hospital or in bed because we are too weak to walk, but we know you are out there running for us, and so we get up, we fight, and we win against cancer.”

Show your support for patient partner duos like Sasha and Beth by making a donation to support the 2024 Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team today. Your donation 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.