TEWKSBURY — Joe Russell is no stranger to the Pan Mass Challenge. In fact, the event has been a big part of his and his family’s life for the last dozen years, but this Saturday he will be involved in a much different way than ever before.
Normally, Russell and his wife Suzanne find themselves as two of the leading fundraisers and volunteers for the event, supporting friends and family that are riding. But this year, Russell will find himself on the opposite end of spectrum, as for the first time he will be the one getting on the bike, making the 85-mile trek from Wellesley to Bourne on Saturday.
He will be riding along with his friend Deb Sughrue, who along with Joe’s sister-in-law Carol White, have been riding for the past dozen years. This year, Carol has decided to put her bike away and Joe is eagerly taking her spot on the ride.
“As soon as Carol said she was not going to ride, I got right on it,” Russell said. “I wanted to do it twelve years ago. It is a great cause and the more money we raise the better it is. It is difficult with so many people close to us riding to be able to raise enough money for everybody, so my wife and I decided to help raise money instead, but once a spot opened up I was glad to ride.”
Russell and his family first became involved in the PMC 12 years ago when family friend Meghan McCarthy, then 15 years old, was diagnosed with cancer. McCarthy, who was good friends with Russell’s daughters Jordan, Alli and Cassidy, was in fact on vacation in Disney World with the Russell family when they noticed that Meghan wasn’t feeling well and was a little sluggish. Upon returning home, they let Meghan’s family know of her symptoms, and not long after Meghan’s family brought her to the doctor where she was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme.
“When we found out she had been diagnosed, it was extremely difficult,” Russell said. “I still remember the day clearly. We had been friends with the McCarthy’s for years. Meghan was like a part of our family. We thought of her like another daughter and our kids thought of her like a sister. It was just devastating news. We wanted to do something and that was when the fund raising began.”
More specifically, a team of riders for the PMC the Flying Henry’s asked Meghan to be their pedal partner. That was when White and Sughrue began to ride and the Russell family has never looked back. Meghan McCarthy lost her battle with cancer on January 19, 2010, but she has never been and will never be forgotten by the Russell family or anyone else who knew her, and her memory is still an inspiration to Joe as he prepares for his first PMC ride.
Unfortunately, McCarthy’s tragic death was hardly the first time that Russell and his family had been touched by cancer, nor was it the last. Joe’s grandfather, William H. Russell passed away from lung cancer when Joe was 15. About 15 yeas later, Joe’s dad William J. Russell was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. While he survived for many years, he ultimately lost his battle to the disease as well.
A few years later the Russell family was introduced to the world of glioblastoma multiforme, when Joe’s brother-in-law, John Iwaniki was diagnosed with the disease, followed shortly thereafter with Meghan’s devastating diagnosis. Not long after losing Meghan, Joe’s sister Sheila and another dear friend of the family Kim Murphy, were diagnosed with GBM, and both ultimately lost their battle with the dreaded disease.
“It has been very difficult,” Russell said. “After losing my father and John to see it affecting someone like Meghan was very tough to see. We have lost so many people close to us to the disease. My family went through more than ten years of people being in and out of hospitals and losing so many people. For a while it felt like it would never end.”
With his ride in the PMC, Russell is hoping to help spare other families the pain and suffering that his family has known. But in order to do that he needed to raise enough money for the ride, $4,000 to be exact. For a while he was not sure how he was going to do it. It was looking like he may come up a little short of his goal. But one night at Wamesit Lanes changed everything.
Russell recently held a Bowling Tournament as a fundraiser at the popular Tewksbury location, and the results could not have been any better, as he was able to raise enough money to meet his goal. Russell was truly grateful for all those who came out to support his fundraising efforts.
“That was my biggest fear, not being able to raise enough money. It was very rewarding to be able to reach my goal,” Russell said. “It was amazing to see people I had not seen in a long time as well as people I had just met in the last couple of years come out for it. We had to get extra lanes because so many people came out.”
Among those in attendance were Meghan McCarthy’s mother Lee, as well as one of Meghan’s former basketball teammates at Tewksbury High Danielle DePierro. Joe and his wife Suzanne were also very appreciative of Donnie McLaren Sr. and Donnie McLaren Jr., the owners of Wamesit Lanes, for all of their assistance that evening and leading up to the event.
“They were both very helpful,” Suzanne said. “In all of the fundraisers I have done, Donnie has done more than anybody in his philanthropic efforts. I also want to say how proud I am of Deb and Carol for all of their perseverance through the years. They have been amazing.”
And now it is Joe’s turn to show just how amazing he can be on his bike, or actually on a bike he is borrowing from Scott Patterson, who rode in the PMC in 2011. Joe obviously has some nerves heading into the race, but he is mostly just excited to ride and do his part for cancer research.
“I am looking forward to it,” Russell said. “I have cheered on a lot of riders over the years. I have been to Bourne and been to Providence as well. And now my family is looking forward to seeing me ride and so am I. The Flying Henry’s are a great group of people and I am happy to be riding with them.”