Honoring the Life and Legacy of Elizabeth Alling Sewall

Ready to Ride: Meet Team E Member Alex Shea

Team Elizabeth yesteryear

4 Days ’til PMC, $60,000 raised toward $85,000 goal

Reading through the rider profiles at the Team Elizabeth PMC page, I have been struck by the stories shared of connections to Elizabeth, to the Sewall family, and to the cause to cure cancer.  With this year’s ride just days away, team member Alex Shea’s essay on why he has chosen to ride captures the essence of what has brought this hearty band of 21 riders together in shared purpose.

Alex and Elizabeth’s son Scott met as freshmen at Trinity College where several other Team E members were also part of their close circle of friends. Alex notes that while he will be the one to bike this weekend, his girlfriend of eight years, Jillian, who is also a close friend of Scott’s, has been every bit as much involved in the cause to fundraise and support his ride for Team E. [Photo above of Alex, Jillian, and Scott, from their sophomore year at Trinity]

Seeing this commitment and passion for Elizabeth’s memorial endowment, I am moved beyond measure. This team, and all of us who cheer from the sidelines and support them through our donations, have forged a community together that is a living, breathing memorial to Elizabeth’s spirit and legacy.  Look out, Cancer, you don’t stand a chance. We’ve only just begun.

—Lucy Mathews Heegaard, Team Elizabeth Scribe

“Why I Ride” by Alex Shea

There are two questions that people rightfully ask before donating to a cause: 1) Why should I give my money? 2) What impact will my donation have?  Hopefully, this note will give you a clear and full answer to both.

In order to do so, I want to talk about three things.  The first is cancer. The second is one of my best friends, Scott Sewall, and his family.  The third is fundraising.

Cancer

Few of you will need a full-blown explanation of the misery that this disease embodies. The Emperor of all Maladies (if you haven’t read the book by this name, or seen the related documentary, I highly recommend both) certainly deserves its title. I became disturbingly familiar with the horror of the disease during my time in clinical research at Memorial Sloan Kettering.  I saw a pair of five and seven-year-old boys lose their thirty-five-year-old mom. I saw a husband’s condition deteriorate in the process of sorting out a payment plan.  I saw patients nearly die in the treatment suite; part of the physical agony that accompanies first-in-human trials. To say the least, the experience was ugly.

But it was also remarkably encouraging.  It was obviously extraordinary to see the perseverance of patients, the power of will in those who forged on through the misery, who continued to provide, to work, to love their children, to fulfill their duties (I met a twenty-one-year-old college student who made the trip down from upstate New York once every two weeks, to treat his stage four Leukemia on an experimental trial, while still attending classes).  And although I was always in awe of these people, that power of will never really surprised me – I’d seen it in my own life.  I knew people who’d lived and died with the disease while maintaining extraordinary grace, dignity and optimism, my grandmother being the penultimate example.

What did surprise me – what did encourage me beyond what I expected – was the dedication of the people who work in those labs and in that hospital.  These people could be doing anything in the world with their root talent.  I met doctors and scientists who could have easily been at Bridgewater or Blackstone, Google or Facebook; working half as hard and getting paid twice as much.  And the really incredible part – the really encouraging part – is that they fully acknowledge that fact, and few of them seemed to care.  Not many researchers will attend a black tie fundraising gala in Manhattan.  But as long as that gala is supporting their work, I doubt that they’d care.

Cancer is everywhere, and it is hideous.  Forty percent (yes, 40%) of us will get cancer at some point; many of us will have our lives changed forever.  These are the people and the institutions that will determine our fate.  If for no other reason than self-preservation, we need to support them.

Scott and the Sewalls

I met Scott as a freshman at Trinity, and he quickly became one of my closest friends.  He’s just one of those kids that draws you in – he’s got a powerful voice and even more powerful laugh, he’s infectiously positive, remarkably good hearted, and smart as hell.  He’s the kid you want your son to be best friends with and your daughter to date.

Scott and I ended up living together our sophomore year, along with Chris Sweitzer and Tommy Dwyer, both veteran Team E members.  We shared a bedroom in a dorm on the Long Walk, the size of which was so inadequate that it literally forced us to become inseparable.  We ended up sharing everything, like mismatched brothers (Scott is about four inches taller than I am), including a bed – the room was so small that we pushed the single frames together to make more room.

I only had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Sewall a few times, but I most distinctly remember her in that room at Trinity. I remember thinking that she was everything you’d want in a mom.  She was beautiful (just look at Scott), young (not yet 50 when I met her), and unmistakably brilliant (a Yalie with a Harvard masters).

Towards the end of her life, Elizabeth and her family decided to set up an endowment fund at Dana Farber in her memory, serving as a way to derive good from her illness. Its core purpose is to raise money to support the work of Dr. Eric Winer at Dana Farber’s Breast Oncology Center.

But the fund is more than a vehicle for pushing the boundaries of cancer research.   It’s also a vehicle for generating joy and meaning in the lives of those who work with the fund – most notably Scott and the Sewall family.  It serves as an opportunity for Scott, his brother Duncan, and his father Gordon to actively create a positive outcome in the face of loss.  And as the annual fundraising outreach, the PMC allows all of us who are close to the Sewall’s to come together and support them in that endeavor.

In order to make lemonade out of lemons, you need a juicer and lot of work. The Elizabeth Alling Sewall Endowment is the juicer, and the PMC provides some of that work.  I’m riding in the PMC to help one the best guys I’ve ever met to continue finding positivity in agony; to continue finding meaning in loss.

Fundraising

Hopefully this has set the stage for the main point – that your money will go to work in two ways.

When you donate money to this cause, you are addressing a huge problem that we will all have to cope with in our lives – every single one of us will be affected in some way by cancer.  Ultimately, funds raised will make the road to discovery shorter, and the movement on that road faster.  There is a ton of operational cost in the research process – equipment maintenance, facilities costs, building maintenance, software licenses, instrument user fees, ongoing training costs, and salaries add up pretty damn quickly.  Whether it’s a day of a post-doc’s salary, or a license to a new software that will double efficiency, your money is ultimately buying time to market for life-saving therapies.  That therapy may cure you, your daughter, or your best friend’s niece.

But as noted, this is not the only purpose your money is serving.  In addition to the lofty, world-altering impact that your money will create, it will also have immediate, tangible impact on an incredible group of people, a family that I know and love.  The dollar figure that we end up with at the end of this year’s fundraising season is a way to quantify – to make tangible – the impact that Elizabeth’s loved ones are making.  It is a way to put a hard number on an esoteric concept, one that’s often hard to wrap your head around – the idea of ‘finding positivity,’ or ‘generating good.’  We didn’t do a lot of good; we did ninety thousand dollars-worth of good.  Scott’s friends didn’t show some support; we showed ten-thousand-dollars-each-worth of support.

On August 5th, when Team E comes together to ride across the state of Massachusetts, I hope to be able to talk about two things.  I hope to be able to talk about Elizabeth, and the incredible life that she lived.  And I hope to be able to talk about the record-breaking amount of money that we raised for a cause that is as important as any that currently exists.

Thank you all for your support.

With gratitude and hope,

Alex

To donate online, visit the Team’s PMC Page HERE