University's Relay For Life fights cancer one stride at a time

By Masaki Sugimoto

Hannah Hartigan’s father was one in a million.

Maybe it was the way he helped his daughter learn karate, or maybe it was the nickname he had for their pet labradoodle.

“Hey diggy dog,” she still hears his voice say.

It’s good to be one in a million, right? The sophomore in LAS always knew it was what made her dad so special.

But one day, when Hartigan was just 11 years old, she learned of an instance when that might not be the case.

The doctors found a rare tumor, the size of a grapefruit or softball, just above his kidneys.

“In 2007, my dad was diagnosed with adrenal cancer,” Hartigan said. “He fought a year-long battle and unfortunately passed away in the fall of 2008.”

Today, about eight years after his passing, Hartigan is 20. She said she will always remember her father’s smile and his unique animal nicknames — especially on Saturday, March 12 JT, the University’s Relay for Life.

There, she served as the team captain for her sorority, Pi Beta Phi. She donned a purple tank top that she personally designed, with the words “Pi Beta Phight” etched in white lettering.

With each stride around the Armory’s track, Hartigan fought back against cancer and honored those, like her father, who had lost the fight.

Fighting, celebrating, remembering

Over 100 teams and 1,081 participants gathered in the Armory on Saturday night for Colleges Against Cancer and the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.

Grace Erickson, vice president of Colleges Against Cancer and junior in Education, said this year’s number of teams surpassed last year’s by 10.

“Everyone makes a difference,” Erickson said.

Unlike other cancer-focused events, the money raised at Relay for Life doesn’t just go toward research, but also toward families and patient treatment costs. Aliya Prescott, Relay for Life community manager for the American Cancer Society, said the team hopes to raise $132,000; so far, $88,000 has been raised. The books close this summer.

Prescott hopes participants take away something specific.

“I’ve never gone through one ceremony where I haven’t choked up or started crying. I hope participants take away a strong sense of pride and accomplishment in fundraising for a cure,” Prescott said, who is a University alumna.

Erickson finds it powerful that participants can interact with people who have been touched by cancer directly.

“They understand it differently than anyone else,” she said. “It’s nice to know that we’re doing something more for them.”

For Hartigan, it’s brought her closer to her father’s story.

One in a million

Adrenocortical carcinoma. About one in a million people get it, the doctors told her family.

Malignant cancer cells had formed on the outer layer of his adrenal gland, a triangular-shaped gland located above the kidneys.

It’s one of the rarest types of cancers. It’s so small, the diagnosis rate in the United States is unknown. Researchers estimate around 200 to 500 people are diagnosed each year, according to

The United States: a country with a population of 318 million. Her father truly had a disease that only one in a million people get.

The phrase was constantly on repeat, a skipping record in Hartigan’s head.

Only one in a million people get it.

That one was her one-in-a-million dad.

Why us? It was a question that her family often wondered. It was a question that used to keep Hartigan up at night.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “My family has all thought about it. One in a million, why us? I thought about that a lot when he first passed away.”

Her father was an orthopedic surgeon. A very smart man, she said, who was in the science world.

“Of course, adrenal cancer takes out the surgeon,” she said.

It didn’t register at first. She thought it was just something her father would get over.

Two weeks after they found the tumor, they rushed him to surgery.

“It was really intense,” she said. “It took him a long time to walk again.”

They purchased a Lazy Boy recliner for the living room, where her father would often rest.

“He spent a lot of time in the chair,” she said.

It was all getting better.

“It looked like he would be fine,” Hartigan said.

But then, his lungs started to build up with fluid. The cancer had spread, and at this point, it was microscopic. Chemotherapy looked like the best option.

Hartigan didn’t live the life of a normal child because of her father’s disease.

When her mother wasn’t home, she would often give her father shots in his upper arm. Her father taught her how to take out his stitches when he couldn’t reach them. With two younger brothers, she was forced to become the next parent.

“Being the oldest has always been a challenge,” she said. “At some points, I feel like I missed out on being a normal teenager. But I definitely think it forced me to mature a lot faster because I had to be more aware of how my mom and my brothers were feeling.”

She was young enough to approach the situation with childlike hope, but old enough to know what was happening.

But it was getting harder and harder to convince herself that he wasn’t sick as she watched his hair fall out everyday.

“It was weird seeing him like that because he actually looked sick,” she said.

Still, Hartigan remained positive. He will get better, she told herself. This is just something he will get over.

It wasn’t until the last month of her father’s life, when a family friend brought home black dresses for her to try on, that she realized she might actually lose her father for good.

“He was still alive and in the hospital,” she said. “They brought them home and were like, ‘we need you to try these on.’ I remember screaming at my mom. ‘What’s wrong you with you? Why would you do this?’”

Today, she knows it was only her mother being pragmatic.

“At the stage he was in, it made sense to start preparing. Funerals happen really fast,” she said.

That was when she knew. It was time to say goodbye.

Her family took a trip to the hospital and spent the entire day with him.

“He was awake, but it was difficult for him to talk,” she said.

If you ignored the pain killers and the lack of hair, in that moment, they were a family again.

But later that night, she got the call.

“Day by day”

At 12 years old, Hannah Hartigan was without a parent. Her brothers hadn’t even reached double-digit ages yet.

It’s hard losing a parent, Hartigan said.

The hardest part, Hartigan said, is dealing with the “what if” questions.

What if they caught it sooner?

What if there was a different line of treatment?

Who will walk me down the aisle when I get married?

“He didn’t see me graduate middle school. He didn’t see me graduate high school. He won’t see me graduate college,” she said.

Her one in a million father’s one in a million disease didn’t make things easier, either.

“It was hard initially because his cancer was so rare, and you see all of these research findings coming out on more prevalent cancers,” she said.

Hartigan, however, wanted to use her difficult experiences as a way to fight back. But everyone forgot about those rare diseases, she said, that affected people like her father.

Then she discovered Relay for Life.

“No research is really done about adrenal cancer,” Hartigan said. “But that’s why I love Relay for Life. It touches on all types of cancer. You’ll see the breast cancer walks and the very specific fundraisers. It’s just nice to have Relay for Life because it’s for everyone.”

As Hartigan marched around the Armory’s track that Saturday evening, she celebrated her eighth Relay for Life.

Soon after her father passed away, she founded her own team in her hometown of Glenview, Illinois. She called it “Got cure?”

She said, since first getting involved with Relay for Life, she has raised around $70,000.

This year, on the University campus, Hartigan sits as the fourth top fundraiser, personally contributing $900, while the rest of her team has raised $2,000 in total.

One of her teammates, Anna Keyes, junior in ACES, marches around the track as well.

Keyes herself is a cancer survivor, successfully beating melanoma. Although she does not know Hartigan very well, she sees Hartigan as an inspiration, especially throughout her own cancer fight.

“She’s very inspiring,” Keyes said. “It takes a great amount of courage to try and fundraise for something. It is such a deadly disease, and it’s inspiring that she picked it up and raised so much money in such a short amount of time.”

To Prescott, this why an event like Relay for Life is so important.

“It generates a substantial amount of money for the research and outreach initiatives of the American Cancer Society,” Prescott said. “It helps participants learn how to fundraise, (and it) creates cancer awareness, demonstrating how many people are affected by the disease.”

Prescott also likes being there for other people who have been impacted by the disease, like Hartigan.

“It provides a support network for patients, survivors, caregivers, family and friends,” she said.

Moving forward

On September 23, 2015, Hartigan made an Instagram post.

“It’s been seven years since we said goodbye for the last time,” the post read. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.”

When she looks at the picture, she is transported back to the days of her younger self. She remembers that day, when the two went skiing on the Twin Lakes in Wisconsin. The pair grasped the line firmly and held on as they were pulled across the water.

She sees her father everywhere she goes. She sees him on her walks around the University campus, because he was an alumnus. She sees him every time she goes home and pets her “diggy dog.”

Though the most recent memories of her father are the times that he was sick, she chooses to see him as being the one-in-a-million dad, not the person with the one-in-a-million disease.

“I try to remember his personality and how dedicated he was to helping other people. I remember what an amazing family person he was,” she said.

In the Instagram post, she looks at her father’s face, noticing his ear-to-ear smile.

It’s the one she’ll always remember.

“I think it’s healthy for me to share this story and think about these things every once and a while,” she said. “If it can help someone else, it’s worth it.”

Hartigan said she has decided to stop wondering what could have happened and instead focus on what she has accomplished through Relay for Life.

“I strongly believe after this that everything happens for a reason, and it took me a really long time to realize that because you think, ‘Why us? Why my dad?’” Hartigan said. “But I look back and think about how much we’ve raised and how much it’s forced me to grow up and help others.”

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