Amherst Men's Lacrosse Hikes for Helen

By Jon Thompson

AMHERST, Mass. - The rain was coming from every angle. The wind was howling and the leaves were blowing across the top of the Holyoke mountain range. But as the 44 members of Amherst gathered on Oct. 19, the weather was the last thing on their minds. It was that day that they "Hiked for Helen." There would absolutely be no dampening of their collective spirit.

In what has become an annual event for the lacrosse program, the team runs almost 16 miles, over the course of seven hours through the Seven Sisters mountain range to raise money and awareness for charity. This year's beneficiary was St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. More specifically, five-year-old Helen Tully, the cousin of a current lacrosse team member Rob Dickinson '15, who is battling Rhabdomyosarcoma, the most common form of soft tissue pediatric cancer.

It was Rob's story that gripped the hearts of the team in an early preseason meeting. Helen's parents, Andra and John, discovered a bruise on Helen's buttocks when she was just eight months old. After a misdiagnosis, Helen saw another doctor who discovered tumors on Helen's pelvis. Eventually, after a third opinion, this time at renowned St. Jude Children's Hospital, Helen was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosacroma, and underwent a 54-week chemotherapy treatment.

Subsequent to further treatment, Helen was in remission for more than a year. Unfortunately, in March 2012 Helen's cancer came back. A golf ball size tumor was found on her pelvis along with a few tiny nodules in her lungs. Helen had surgery to remove the larger tumor, and chemotherapy helped with the nodules.

Helen's current treatment is considered maintenance therapy. Researchers at St. Jude, including Michael Dyer, PhD, whose lab will directly benefit from funds raised in the "Hike for Helen," are working to find new possible treatments and hopefully, a cure for children who have soft tissue solid tumors.

After enthusiastically deciding on Rhabdomyosarcoma research at St. Jude, each team member raised money for Dr. Dyer's lab. Thinking broadly and globally has become a hallmark of the annual run. Two years ago, the team "Ran for Ruth." Last year they "Climbed for Cole" and this year they "Hiked for Helen." The beneficiaries were the Ruth Sussman Fund at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital for breast cancer, Cole Seem and United Cerebral Palsy, and Helen Tully at St. Jude's.

Already drawing inspiration from a pair of videos, "Hey Jude" and one created specifically for the purposes of Hike for Helen, the team Skyped with Helen and Andra on the eve of the run. The gesture truly hit its mark.

"To see Helen on the T.V. and to see how happy she was despite her situation, just seared an image in all of our hearts," said head coach Jon Thompson. "To realize that we were embarking on a mission that was so much bigger than ourselves, was absolutely remarkable. I wasn't the only one who choked up that evening, I can tell you that much."

Starting at the Notch Visitors Center in Mt. Holyoke Range state park, the team ran up and down nearly 4,000 feet of vertical climb, over rocky terrain. To track their progress, a GPS system was used and projected in the Keefe Campus Center throughout the day.

Twelve members of this year's team ran the entire 16 miles. According to team members, the pace was not the challenge; it was the duration that takes its toll on the body and mind.

"When legs began to cramp and when the rain became utterly soaking, it would've been easy to let your mind go elsewhere and start to feel sorry for yourself," said Thompson.

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