Mary Bittner: making strides to fight leukemia

Mary Bittner is training for a half-marathon to fight leukemia./Cover photo and this photo by Shawn Cunningham

Mary Bittner is training for a half-marathon to fight leukemia./Cover photo and this photo by Shawn Cunningham

 By Karen Zuppinger

Mary Bittner is looking for a fight.  Running along the Green Mountain Turnpike, the Chester resident is in training, preparing to battle a grueling half marathon in the fall on the hilly streets of San Francisco. But her fight isn’t with the streets of San Francisco. It’s with leukemia, a blood cancer that has taken the lives of three members of her family members and has threatened her 21-year-old nephew. And for the past nine years, the Nike Women’s Half Marathon and Marathon has been raising money to fight the disease.

When she was just  6  4, Bittner’s 29-year-old father was diagnosed with leukemia. Back then, the cure rate was zero. Two years later at age 31, her father died, leaving her mother with four young children to raise.  Over the years, Bittner has lost several family members to leukemia and other forms of cancer.

Then this past April, her nephew Sam Brigham, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer where immature white blood cells are over-produced in the bone marrow. It’s the most common form of leukemia found in children, peaking between the ages of 2 and 5. The five-year survival — or cure — rate for children up to 10 years old is about 94 percent. But the long-term prognosis diminishes as a patient gets older, with the cure rate for adults of 30 to 40 percent.

Another cancer diagnosis

Sam Brigham, Bittner's 21-year-old nephew, was diagnosed in April with leukemia. He is in remission.

Sam Brigham, Bittner’s 21-year-old nephew, was diagnosed in April with leukemia. He is in remission./Photo supplied

Brigham, who is the son of Bittner’s sister — and best friend — Margaret, was finishing his junior year at St. Michael’s College in Burlington when he began feeling tired, achy and fatigued. A few months earlier, he had pulled a muscle in his back, so he and his parents thought the pain was probably attributed to that. But the pain didn’t go away and Brigham grew more and more fatigued.  By April, Brigham could no longer train for the cross country team and he sought help from his family doctor.

Bittner, a former nurse, looks back on recent family holidays: “He was at our house for Thanksgiving dinner and he looked fine. But then I saw him at my mom’s house on Easter and I knew something wasn’t right. He looked pale as a ghost. I should have said something. But there were so many people around I just let it go. Who knows what a difference a few weeks would have made?”

After a blood transfusion, Brigham regained some strength and his medical team started him in on a weekly dose of three types of chemotherapy administered intravenously and orally. The plan was to stay on this regimen for five weeks, then do another bone marrow biopsy that would tell them if the cancer was in remission.

A close knit family, the Brighams rallied around Sam, taking personal leave and rearranging job schedules to be with him in the hospital.  Bittner too wanted to do something that could make a difference in her nephew’s recovery. For her that something was running.

Running, in the family

Bittner, following in her husband George’s footsteps, had taken up running seven years ago. George Bittner was a former college cross country runner and went on to participate in several marathons.

“I thought George was crazy,” Bittner says. “I never thought that running in a marathon would be something that I’d be interested in doing.”

But after watching her husband participate in the 2006 Boston Marathon, Bittner thought she’d give it a try. “As I approached 50, I thought I wanted to do a marathon that year. At first I wanted to just to see if I could do it,” Bittner says. “Then after I finished the Philadelphia Marathon, I had to do a second one just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.”

Daughter-in-law Jenny Bittner, left, with her mother-in-law Mary will run the half marathon in honor of Sam Brigham.

Daughter-in-law Jenny Bittner, left, with her mother-in-law Mary will run the half marathon in honor of Sam Brigham./Photo supplied.

Seven years, and two full and several half marathons later,  Bittner is still running. Most recently she competed in the Vermont City Marathon as part of a relay team with daughter-in-law Jenny Bittner.

“When Jenny suggested that we run in the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in October, it seemed like the perfect way to honor my nephew and to raise money for a cure,” says Bittner. “She’s always wanted to run in it. She lost a cousin to leukemia at age 10. She’s  a runner too.”

At the time Mary and Jenny decided to run for Sam, her nephew’s prognosis was up in the air. But on Friday May 24, the results from the bone marrow biopsy showed Brigham’s leukemia is in remission, and after six weeks in the hospital he was finally allowed to go home. And he plans to return to college in the fall.

Brigham’s fight with leukemia will continue for years to come with outpatient chemotherapy.  In the meantime, the Bittners will be running for a cure.

The Nike Marathon and Half Marathon has been raising money to fight leukemia for the past nine years. It is billed as the world’s largest running event for women. The October event is expecting nearly 30,000 participants. To date, it has raised $134 million for leukemia research.

To learn more about Sam Brigham and how to donate, click here.   Or you can mail a check made out to LLS (the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society), and send it to  Mary Bittner,  P.O. Box 819, Chester, VT  05143.

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About the Author: Karen Zuppinger in a freelance writer and Chester resident. Her work has appeared in Vermont Magazine and Assisi's Online Journal of Arts and Letters. She is a winner of America's Best Short Fiction Award.

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