They gathered not to mourn, but to revere Claire Wagonhurst’s memory by participating in the Baltimore Running Festival on Saturday.
The 59 friends and admirers of the former Notre Dame Preparatory School student from Lutherville, who died Oct. 16, 2014 from melanoma, at the age of 17, spent at least part of a beautifully mild and sunny fall morning running in her honor.
By agreeing to cover a variety of distances, from relays to marathons, the participants raised money from pledges for the Claire Marie Foundation— $33,000, according the Claire’s mother, Marianne Banister — to help fight the disease that strikes adolescents and young adults at an alarming rate.
Banister and her husband, Rocky Wagonhurst, and their eldest daughter, Hillary Wagonhurst, created the nonprofit foundation to ensure that the community understands the dangers of melanoma in young people. The foundation is dedicated to helping to combat the disease "through awareness, education and prevention,” according to its website, clairemariefoundation.org.
The reason so many of Claire Marie’s friends showed up for the run is simple, they said. They loved her for what her former Notre Dame Prep classmate, Alexandra Seward, described as Claire’s “bubbly” personality.
The close friends first met in kindergarten at St. Joseph’s School, in Cockeysville.
“She was artsy and well-rounded, too, and the kind of person anyone could come up to and talk to at any time,” said Seward, now a college junior from Reisterstown who plays lacrosse for John Hopkins University. “Almost every girl in our class had taken pictures with her. She made friends with just so many different people.”
Seward completed a 5K at the running festival with fellow Notre Dame alumnae Shannon Murphy and sisters Meredith and Caroline Drusano. Other former Blazers at the event included siblings Kate and Maggie Behlen.
Loyola Blakefield alumnus Tommy Oswald and Calvert Hall College High School grad Michael Nanan, who is the Claire Marie Foundation Ambassador at Towson University, also joined the running brigade.
Coupled with glorious weather, the running fundraiser made for an uplifting experience for her and her family, Banister said.
“It was amazing to see the strength and commitment of [the runners] to help not only raise funds for our programs, but also to raise awareness of the prevalence of melanoma in young adults and adolescents,” Banister said. "The physical endurance and even pain, is a reminder of the strength and challenge it takes to push through a diagnosis and treatment of melanoma. It validates why we should prevent the disease through early detection.”
Still, early detection was not an issue in Claire’s case, according to Banister, and is only one of several important factors in fighting the disease.
The mole on Claire’s ankle bone had been detected early enough, yet she had a long delay before she could be seen by a plastic surgeon in order to remove it, Banister said
“The plastic surgeon’s office put us on hold for three months, claiming ‘kids don’t get melanoma,’ despite the fact that the mole kept changing during that time,” Banister said. “In short, a broken system combined with a lack of understanding and knowledge within the medical community about the disease in young people reduced her chances of surviving the disease.”
Banister said that part of the problem with melanoma screenings, detection and biopsies is that dermatologists and plastic surgeons split their time between cosmetic concerns and medical concerns.
"Studies have been conducted that found a patient can receive a botox treatment within two weeks, but the average wait for a skin screening is three to four months," Banister added. "If patients have concerns about any other kind of cancer, they may need to wait to see the specialist, but they know everyone ahead of them on the list has the same medical concerns. Only skin cancer and melanoma patients need to compete against the more financially lucrative cosmetic appointments. That is not to indict dermatologists and plastic surgeons who are medically oriented, but it is a big part of the systematic issue."
With that thorny issue in mind, the Claire Marie Foundation’s goal is to change how parents and physicians view melanoma, which has increased by 250 percent over the past 40 years, according to the foundation’s website.
To that end, the foundation urges young adults and adolescents to receive annual screenings to detect a form of the skin cancer that is not always related to sun exposure.
Teaching pediatricians to understand that hormones and genetics may play as much into the disease’s development as any other factor is a key to prevention, Banister said.
"It was an exciting, emotional day,” Banister said of the running festival. "We know that Claire would be thrilled to see so many friends coming out to support her. Some are friends she knew since she could walk; others are people she never knew but now happily carry her name and story with them in the hopes it will save another young person. Most importantly, it is all done with a sense of joy, excitement and fun — all the things that were so important to Claire.”
For more information on the Claire Marie Foundation, go to clairemariefoundation.org.