When the runners at this year's Maryland Half Marathon make their way across the finish line after 13.1 miles, Amy Babst plans to be there handing out medals with a smile.
"It means so much to me to support those who are raising money to fight cancer," says the 29-year-old Linthicum resident. "Especially as a cancer survivor myself. I'm very lucky. And I have so much to live for."
Indeed, marathon co-founder Michael Greenebaum says the sixth annual race scheduled for May 10 in Howard County is about celebrating life.
"My mother is a 24-year breast-cancer survivor," he says of Marlene Greenebaum. "She's the inspiration."
Seven years ago, Greenebaum and his running buddy Jon Sevel launched the race as a small, informal run with family and friends through Pikesville. In 2009, they made it official, and it has grown in size and scope ever since.
Last year, the event drew some 2,000 participants; new this year is the Maryland 5K, which organizers hope will help draw an even larger crowd, as well as a Kids Fun Run and Kids Zone.
To date, the race has raised more than $1.5 million. As in years past, proceeds will benefit the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center, located on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
"One hundred percent of the net proceeds benefit this nationally recognized cancer center," Sevel said.
For the Greenebaum family, the center has particular significance.
"Back when my mother was diagnosed, my father promised to do something special to celebrate her recovery," says Michael, 49, a real estate developer. "And he did."
In 1996, Stewart Greenebaum surprised his wife and officials with a $10 million gift to the University of Maryland Medical System and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He made the pledge exactly five years to the day he first learned of Marlene's diagnosis. Officials marked the record-breaking donation by renaming the center in honor of the couple.
Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States — right behind heart disease, according to the American Cancer Society. The society's 2014 data estimates that there will be 1.6 million new cancer cases diagnosed in this country in 2014, and more than 585,000 deaths.
The statistics and the individuals behind them help drive the Greenebaum center's team.
The facility, a National Cancer Institute-designated center, is ranked in the top tier of cancer centers nationwide by U.S. News & World Report.
With some 250 researchers, clinicians and other experts, the center offers a multidisciplinary approach to preventing, detecting and treating all types of cancer. That's complemented by an a cancer research program that incorporates translational research — taking what's done in the lab and trying to bring it into the clinic for the benefit of patients. One example is the research of Angela Hartley Brodie, an award-winning center researcher who's done groundbreaking work in the development of aromatase inhibitors, a newer class of drugs used in the treatment of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
Dr. Kevin J. Cullen, an oncologist, has served as director of the Greenebaum center since 2004.
"Our faculty members may study the causes of cancer pain, and health disparities, or the basic biology of leukemia," says Cullen, referring to the range of research being conducted at the center. "We see about 3,000 newly diagnosed patients annually."
While there are patients who hail from across the country or around the world, many arrive at the center from closer to home.
Among them are people like Babst.
In the summer of 2008, she was 38 weeks' pregnant with her first child, when she woke up one night gasping for air.
"I couldn't breathe," she recalls. "My husband was ready to call 911 when I finally caught my breath. I was tired and hormonal, so I just thought it was something related to my pregnancy."
Yet when Babst visited her obstetrician and casually mentioned the incident, the response she received was serious. "One listen to my lungs, and he told me to go straight to the nearest ER for a chest X-ray," she says. "I was a little scared and not sure what to expect."
Babst learned that she had a mass in her chest "the size of a large Starbucks coffee cup," and a web of tumors in her neck and under one armpit.
After being referred to the University of Maryland Medical Center, a whirlwind of medical tests, consultations and procedures followed. An integrated team of medical professionals worked together to determine the best course of treatment for Babst and her unborn baby.
"They induced labor, but after a few days, I had an emergency C-section," she says. "My daughter was healthy, but I barely got to see or hold her, because about12 hours later I was back in surgery for a lymph node biopsy."
Babst would later be formally diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma (once known as Hodgkin's disease), a cancer of the lymphatic system. "I was stunned by the news," says Babst, who was 23 years old at the time. "I was physically active, ate good food and didn't smoke. This was not supposed to happen. We were just trying to process it all."
She underwent six months of chemotherapy and three months of radiation treatments. "The chemo was painful initially. It burned," she says. "And I lost all my hair."
Yet amid all the trauma and uncertainty, Babst did receive some good news: About eight weeks after completing radiation, she learned that she was expecting again.
"The doctors had been giving me shots to help preserve my fertility," she says. "We call my first daughter our angel, and the second our miracle baby. And now we have a third baby — 9 months old — who's just a ray of sunshine."
Babst says her oncologist has told her that the cancer under her neck and arms is gone. Radiation killed much of the mass in her chest, she says, but left behind residual scar tissue and diminished lung function. But she's feeling stronger than ever.
"My family has been phenomenal," she says. "My mother is a nurse, and she quit her job to help care for me."
Babst looks forward to being among fellow cancer survivors, their families and the center's doctors, nurses and other staffers at the half marathon.
"I had a positive experience at the center," she says." They really helped me get through a tough time."
Hearing this type of testimony is what pushes the race organizers, who are determined to make the event bigger and better each year.
"Cancer touches everybody's lives in some fashion," says Michael Greenebaum. "That's why we're running."
If you go
The Maryland Half Marathon is scheduled for Saturday, May 10, in the Maple Lawn community of Howard County. The Maryland 5K will kick off shortly after the start of the half marathon. In addition, the event will feature a Kids Fun Run and a Kids Zone, as well as music.
•The half marathon starts at 8 a.m. The registration fee is $90.
•The Maryland 5K begins at 8:30 am. Registration is $35.
•The Kids Fun Run begins at 8:45 am and registration is $15. The Kids Zone is free.
•The County Cup will be presented to the executive who represents the home county of the first state resident to cross the finish line.
For more information, visit mdhalfmarathon.com.