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A second chance at life; Amherst native running in Boston Marathon today was not expected to survive leukemia when she was 12

When Hilary Hall takes her first step this morning on the 26-mile route of the Boston Marathon, she'll be running toward the future that doctors had once told her she had only a 30 percent chance of seeing.

"I am fully aware of the odds I have overcome," the 27-year-old Amherst native said last week as she geared up for the race.

Hall, who now lives in Cambridge, Mass., was just 12 years old -- a seventh-grader at Casey Middle School -- when her parents noticed one Saturday morning in January that she seemed unusually exhausted at the end of an ice skating lesson. They rushed her to her pediatrician.

"Within minutes, they knew I needed a blood test," Hall recalled.

She was sent to what was then Children's Hospital, where doctors ran tests. It turned out she had acute myeloid leukemia, and the doctors said they needed to start treatment right away.

"They said they were going to start everything first thing in the morning Monday, so go home, enjoy your family and come back first thing Monday," Hall said.

Hall recounted the worries that filled her head as she prepared for what would be the first of two aggressive, and grueling, chemotherapy sessions. Being so young, she didn't think about death as a possibility. Not yet, at least. But she fretted about losing her hair, about what her friends would think when she didn't show up at school and whether she'd be able to take advanced science classes the next year.

During that first chemo session, Hall was so sick she couldn't get out of bed for 10 days. She remembered finally getting up and seeing herself in the mirror. "My eye was completely red because I had busted so many blood vessels from throwing up so much," she said.

The chemo worked, and she went into full remission. But doctors wanted to make sure the cancer was gone, so she underwent a second 10-day course with the same physicians, this time at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

Once again, she stayed in remission. But because of genetic factors, doctors worried about the risk of relapse and recommended a bone marrow transplant.

Fortunately, her younger brother, David Roy, who was 10 at the time, was a six out of six match. Hall underwent four days of radiation, and then on April 9, 1996, her brother's marrow was extracted and infused into her body.

Hall's body began to reject the new marrow. She had numerous complications, including grand mal seizures. Her mother recalls one day when Hall came out of a restroom and said: "Mom, I don't remember how to turn the sink on."

But eventually, Hall's body persevered.

Almost a year to the day of her diagnosis with cancer, she returned to school. Her teachers had helped her keep up with her classmates so she was able to fit right back in. She went on to attend Williamsville North. She went to Penn State University and then later to the University at Buffalo for graduate school.

Doctors had told Hall's parents that she had about a 30 percent chance of living five years after the bone marrow transplant. That five-year mark came and went.

Hall knows she was lucky.

She had met lots of other people with cancer during her stays at the hospital and her countless follow-up visits, and many didn't make it. There were three other patients at Roswell Park who had undergone bone marrow transplants when she had her procedure.

"They all passed away within a year or two," she said.

Beyond the chances of her survival, doctors also prepared her family for more issues. They said that Hall wouldn't be able to have children, and that weighed heavily on Hall's mind as she wondered whether anyone would want to marry her knowing she couldn't have babies.

But in 2002, while Hall was at Penn State, she met Donny, a fellow student. It didn't matter to him whether she could have children or not.

They got married in Clarence in 2008, and the next year, Hall got the surprise of her life when she learned she was pregnant.

"It was a little bit scary," she said. She worried about whether the baby would have birth defects, whether he would end up with cancer as well.

She was thrilled and relieved when Augustus was born, right at 37 weeks and perfectly healthy.

As 2011 approached, Hall, who became a researcher at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, began thinking of ways to celebrate 15 cancer-free years.

Her husband suggested a trip.

But then last fall, she heard about Dana-Farber's marathon team.

"I cannot think of a better way to celebrate life," she said.

She signed up. They accepted her on the team.

"OK," she thought to herself. "Now I have to see if I can run a mile. So I ran a mile from my house and was out of breath."

But she decided she wasn't going to quit. She began training, and kept at it through one of the harshest winters Boston has seen in years. "It was nothing for Buffalo, but it was pretty tricky," she said.

Along the way, she began raising sponsorships. She had hoped to collect $1,000 for every cancer-free year. By last week, she had more than $17,000, with many donors from the Buffalo area.

Hall knows today will be both physically and emotionally challenging.

Her goal is to just finish. She's not going to worry about how long it takes.

"I want to enjoy it," she said. "I want to take it all in and get across the finish line."

She will draw strength from her memories of those grueling days in the hospital and of all those people who weren't as lucky. She'll struggle on through those 26 miles filled with the hope that research will someday lead to cures for all cancers, cheered on by her friends and family yelling her name along the way and knowing that at the finish line will be her husband and toddler son cheering her on.

Anyone interested in sponsoring Hall in her marathon endeavor can go to http://www.runDFMC.org/2011/hilaryh.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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