Jessica Williamson of Danvers participated in her first Cancer WALK in 2005 to raise awareness about young people with cancer. Williamson was 19 years old when she was diagnosed in 2003 with synovial carcinoma in her right knee.
Her year of treatment—surgery, chemotherapy and radiation at the North Shore Cancer Center (now the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center in Danvers) and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was a stressful time made more challenging by the fact that Williamson often was the only teenager in a room full of adult patients and caregivers. She credits the compassionate personal care she received on the North Shore with helping her cope and inspiring her to become an oncology nurse.
Williamson is one of the thousands who will attend the 25th anniversary North Shore Cancer WALK on Sunday, June 28, starting at 8:30 a.m. in Salem Willows Park.
Now 30 years old, cancer-free, married and the mother of two toddlers, Williamson has participated in many North Shore Cancer WALKs. “The day is one of unity and everyone has a cause,” she says. “It’s very uplifting.”
Since raising its first $247,000 in 1991, the Cancer WALK has become the largest single-day fundraising event on the North Shore, generating more than $20 million in support of cancer treatment and programs at NSMC and the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center.
James McIntyre, M.D., Chief of Radiation Oncology at the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center, completed his first Cancer WALK in 2002 and hasn’t missed one since. “The atmosphere at the Cancer WALK is electric—walkers arriving by the busload, families setting up tents and barbecues in the park, strangers greeting one another as friends,” says Dr. McIntyre. “For me, it’s truly a privilege to work with a cancer resource that is so valued by the community.”
Through the years, proceeds from the WALK have supported construction of the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center, expansion of treatment facilities at NSMC and development of resources in mammography, radiation, infusion and clinical trials. Funds raised this year will go toward the development of a new inpatient oncology unit at NSMC Salem Hospital and wellness services and support programs at the Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center.
“Simply put, there would be no cancer program on the North Shore without the Cancer WALK,” says Joel Schwartz, M.D., Director of Oncology Services at Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center, who has participated in every WALK since it began. “I can’t overstate my gratitude to the many local businesses who support the WALK, the thousands of individual contributors at all levels and the hundreds of volunteers who provide refreshments, entertainment and encouragement along the route.”
Among those sharing Dr. Schwartz’s enthusiasm are 25th anniversary Cancer WALK co-chairs Chris Cole and Mary Jo Gagnon. Cole, who lost his wife, Debbie, to breast cancer in 2014, says that the Cancer WALK gives him an opportunity to keep her legacy and spirit alive. “During her treatment, Debbie became involved in the Cancer WALK because she wanted to do something for the community and for others facing this disease,” he explains. “Her team, Debbie’s SnackCakes, has since become one of the largest team fundraisers in WALK history, and I know she’d be proud that we are continuing her work.”
Gagnon is also participating in honor of loved ones. “Like many people, I have been touched by cancer,” says Gagnon, senior vice president of operations at NSMC and longtime Cancer WALK participant and volunteer. “I lost several family members to the disease and know that it can leave one feeling helpless. It is good to be part of something like the WALK that enables us to take action, connect with other people and give back.” For Williamson, her experience with cancer has affected choices throughout her life. As a dedicated oncology nurse, she now brings the same special care to others that meant so much to her years ago.