It didn’t take long for AnnaLynn Surace to grasp the impact of the strength of a team after she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in October 2008.
Visitors started filtering into her hospital room at Roswell Park Cancer Institute within hours, and food, cards and keepsakes began to show up in the Surace family’s mailbox. The outpouring continued for more than a year and a half as she battled chemotherapy, remission and relapse – and still flows as a fundraising force that has pulsed more than $150,000 into Roswell and Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) research and support efforts.
“Having a support team when you have cancer, and afterward, means a lot on multiple levels. First of all, you don’t feel alone. You feel supported and by default it makes you feel positive and hopeful,” said AnnaLynn, who has been in remission for five years.
Cancer slowed her doctoral studies in epidemiology at the University of Rochester, but it underlined the importance of family, friends and community when it comes to treatment and recovery, the 29-year-old Lockport native said.
It also gave rise to a name for what previously had been her informal support network – Team AnnaLynn – which will be among dozens of teams to take part later this month in Delaware Park for Light the Night, a key fundraiser for the regional Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Western and Central New York (read the details below).
After what the family went through, and the love and support received, “All we can do is pay it forward,” said her father, Rocco Surace, who along with AnnaLynn’s mother, Debbie, will chair the event in 2016.
“Even before this, Team AnnaLynn existed,” said her younger brother, Rocky. “We just put a label on it.”
The Surace family recently described growing up on O’Connor Drive in Lockport with many extended family members nearby. Home served as home base for AnnaLynn, Rocky, their older sister, Christianna DeVoe, and many of their friends, most of whom continue to live in the Niagara County city.
“My mom never knew how many people she was cooking for,” AnnaLynn said. “It’d drive her nuts.”
Rocco Surace described the visitors as familiar and friendly toward one another; a group that unexpectedly had to brace for a challenge after Dr. Muneeb Haroon diagnosed the sore throat and swollen lymph nodes AnnaLynn thought was a nagging cold as a blood cancer. The doctor drove to the family’s house to share the news in person, and told the Suraces AnnaLynn needed to get to Roswell immediately. Within four hours, she underwent strong chemotherapy that plunged her in and out of consciousness for two weeks. She was forced to leave school as several more months of intensive rounds of chemo followed.
Unable to work or go to school as she recovered, AnnaLynn leaned on her circle of loved ones for support.
“Please come visit me,” she told folks who asked how they could help. “I was so bored.”
Family members and high school and college friends came to visit her “multiple times,” her mother said. Friends of AnnaLynn’s boyfriend, Mark Williams, also were part of the mix.
“They came in to give him a weekend here and there to kind of step away,” Debbie Surace said. “We had teams upon teams upon teams.”
Her cousin, Carrie Fick, a cross-country and track team member while at Lockport High, was the first to offer to raise money for cancer-related causes in AnnaLynn’s honor by running a half marathon seven months after AnnaLynn’s diagnosis.
Little did she know the team effort that she was about to unleash.
“We went and saw Carrie run and it hit me,” Rocco Surace said. “At a lot of these events, maybe 10 percent of the people are runners. Ninety percent are raising money for someplace.”
AnnaLynn’s sister started running and soon realized that the family’s favorite destination – Disney World – had running races that helped raise money for causes including LLS.
A dozen of AnnaLynn’s family members and friends participated in the Disney Half Marathon in January 2010 and raised about $50,000.
On the trip home, Rocco Surace, a partner with The Bonadio Group certified public accounting firm, watched “The Bucket List” and decided he and other family members would do “The Goofy” the following year: The Disney half marathon on Saturday and full marathon the next day.
AnnaLynn suffered a recurrence of cancer a week after that decision. It required more treatment and a bone marrow transplant. Her siblings were not a match, and a stranger, Jessie Selvidge, from Marietta, Ga., would instead become the donor.
As she heeled, several of her friends and family members began to run regularly with help from local Team in Training running coach Pat LaDuca. The goal in early 2011 was to finish The Goofy, even if it meant a combination of running, jogging and walking.
Somewhere about that time, those in the running contingent decided to call themselves Team AnnaLynn. Team members believe Debbie Surace, a registered nurse with Eastern Niagara Hospital, came up with the name.
“We were running for her, so it was all very simple,” she said.
AnnaLynn first saw about 30 T-shirts bearing the name a few months later while standing at the balcony of her hotel while preparing to run the Nike Half Marathon in San Francisco with the contingent.
“There weren’t words to describe the feeling. I don’t know how to articulate it but it’s extremely motivating and inspiring and humbling that they view me in that way,” she said. “There are times when I think I didn’t really do anything that special. Maybe that’s what was so special, that I kept my head down and did what I needed to do.”
AnnaLynn said she doesn’t want to credit a support system completely to her recovery. She was stricken with a treatable form of cancer when she was young and healthy, and got exceptional care at Roswell Park. She understands that some diagnosed with cancer would rather go it alone, or with a small circle of supporters.
But she said this to those with loved ones facing a similar diagnosis:
“For anyone out there wondering what someone should do when someone has cancer or something else major going on, just go be with them and feel them out. They’ll let you know what they need you to do. They’ll let you know if they need you to sit there and tell them it’s going to be OK. They’ll let you know all they want you to do is sit next to them and relax, or take them out and distract them. You’ll be able to tell what they need. Just being there for them, treating them normally, is probably what they want.”
AnnaLynn’s parents, siblings and other members of Team AnnaLynn continue to run races and participate in the Ride For Roswell, Light the Night and other events to raise money in her honor. They include Williams, who was in law school and often by her side during the toughest of times, and married her in August 2013.
“It was good. An emotional day,” AnnaLynn said.
Team AnnaLynn celebrated with the couple, as did Selvidge, the woman who gave her the life-saving bone marrow transplant.
Light the Night
What: Participants, who are asked to raise $100 or more to become a “Champion for Cures,” carry illuminated lanterns – white for survivors, red for supporters and gold in memory of a life lost. Money raised will support local patients and their families through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Western and Central New York
When: 7:15 p.m. Sept. 25; registration starts at 5 p.m.
Where: Delaware Park
Register: As part of a team or individual walker online at lightthenight.org or by calling 834-2578.