Behind every team photo and supportive hug at the annual Angels Among Us 5K and family fun run are stories of personal struggle and hope, love and new friendship. New teams form. Old ones dissolve. And some, persistent and resolute, stay in it for the long-haul.
For a third year, two women, both of whom have endured their own harrowing battles against brain cancer, are again joining forces to help fund a cure.
Jodi Novak and Sally Grant, who became friends through The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, both beat the odds for their own survival and even went on to bear children.
Married for just three years, Jodi Novak and her airman husband, based in Colorado, were planning to start a family when in June 2001 she was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“We wanted to have a kid and instead I got a brain tumor,” laughed Novak, a bubbly dental hygienist with a gift for gab. “It totally rocked our world.”
Novak, then 27, had experienced migraines since she was a kid, but after series of four in a 24-hour period, she was convinced that “something wasn’t right” and demanded that her primary care doctor order an MRI.
As it turned out, she had a relatively small ping-pong sized tumor — an epithelioid glioblastoma (GBM). Because it was caught early she was able to have it surgically removed before the cancer had a chance to spread.
When Novak’s oncologist couldn’t give her an estimate for how long she might live beyond surgery, she and her husband went online and searched her tumor type, learned about GBM research being done at Duke and fired off an email to neuro-oncologist Henry Friedman, MD, asking his advice about her case.
Friedman quickly got in touch; advising her to continue with the seven weeks of post-surgery radiation treatments she was getting in Colorado and then recommending she come to Duke.
“We saw Dr. Henry on October 8, 2001. I can’t remember people’s birthdays but this date is ingrained in my brain; I can’t forget it,” said Novak, who from that point on followed a Friedman-designed treatment plan, which included a mix of chemotherapy drugs, taken back home, plus regular follow-ups at Duke. “I took my last dose of chemo in Dec. 2002 and everything has been clear since then.”
About half of the nearly 25,000 new cases of primary malignant brain tumors diagnosed yearly are glioblastomas, the deadliest form of brain cancer. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, the median survival rate for these patients is only 14.6 months, though there have been some rare cases of patients living from 10 to 20 years.
Because of her tumor and subsequent treatment, Novak had to wait several years after her diagnosis to conceive. Now 43, she is a busy mother of two young girls, age five and eight. She draws strength from her faith, her family, and the women in her Bible study group.
Sally Grant was diagnosed with glioblastoma in Dec. 2009 during her first year teaching in New Orleans. She said she figured her disoriented thoughts were simply a result of “going crazy” trying to set up her new classroom and unpack their apartment following a move from Indiana. That was not the case.
“While not many people would welcome this diagnosis, it’s especially hard to receive when you’re the 38-year-old mother of an almost two-year-old daughter,” she wrote in a blog she kept to share her journey with supportive friends and family.
Advised to get a second opinion, she, her husband and toddler, caught a flight to Duke that weekend and showed up at The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center that Monday to request an appointment.
“The following day, Dr. Sampson, who would become my neurosurgeon, looked at the scans and gave us really good news,” Grant said. “My tumor was not a glioblastoma, but a less serious anaplastic oligoastrocytoma.” Surgery, and then radiation and chemotherapy treatments followed.
Though her neuro-oncologist Henry Friedman, MD, had given her the go-ahead to get pregnant just one year after the end of treatment, Grant wasn’t sure if pregnancy was possible. In case she was able to get pregnant, Grant and her husband decided to move from New Orleans to Durham, North Carolina, to be close to her Duke doctors.
“I asked a nurse at the cancer center, ‘Has anyone ever had a successful pregnancy after a brain tumor?’” said Grant. “She said, ‘Yes, Jodi Novak.’”
A Meeting of the Minds
Novak, still in Colorado, was happy to offer reassurance and guidance, and the pair reached out to one another via email — keeping up correspondence through Grant’s eventual pregnancy and ultimately becoming friends.
Novak coordinates her annual appointment with Friedman each year to correspond with the week of Angels Among Us, a cause near and dear to her heart. She’s attended the event nearly every year since 2002 “when it was still small” and estimates that over the years her team has raised around $30,000 for brain cancer research.
Osteoporosis and a hip impingement possibly caused by her cancer treatment 15 years ago — “a few hiccups along the way” — now keeps her from running the race. However, she still participates and continues to invite those without a team to join Because Gray Matters — making friends along the way.
While Novak chokes up over having lost so many of those friends to brain cancer, her voice brightens when she talks about the intimate moms’ club of brain tumor survivors she stays connected with, including Grant and a mom who has her own Angels team.
“This disease is a hill. You need a community; you can’t do it alone,” Novak said. “There’s a higher purpose in me being here, and I believe it’s to get my story out and help others.”
A stay-at-home mother-of-two, Grant, now 46, has survived seven years since her diagnosis and her scans show no signs of active cancer. She follows a strict anti-cancer diet and takes medications to control tumor-induced attention deficit disorder (ADD) and a seizure disorder that prevents her from driving. She does enjoy the short walk from her house to Whole Foods, which is where she first met Novak in person, soon after Grant had her “post-cancer baby.”
Grant joined Novak’s “Because Gray Matters” Angels Among Us team in 2015, stayed for 2016, and will participate again this year. She’s also organizing the third annual fundraiser for Novak’s team at a Durham restaurant.
“Jodi got me hooked in to Angels Among us,” said Grant, who enjoys yoga and low impact aerobics. “Ever since I moved to Durham and had my miracle child, I feel compelled to do it every year.”
The 2017 Angels Among Us 5k and Family Fun Run, to support the research of The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, takes place at Duke on Saturday, April 29. To register for the event or start a team, visit Angels Among Us. To make a gift to Novak’s team, visit Because Gray Matters.
The “Because Gray Matters” team is encouraging supporters to eat out at Parizade restaurant, 2200 W. Main Street, Durham, for lunch or dinner on April 20 or April 21. If supporters mention "Because Gray Matters" or The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, Parizade will donate 20 percent of their bill to “Because Gray Matters.” Parizade is where Novak has celebrated “clear scans” for the past few years.
Circle photo (top): Jodi Novak and Sally Grant at Angels Among Us 2015. The two moms, who became connected through their fight against brain cancer, said they're thankful for the support from friends and family they've received, especially their husbands who were their number-one caregivers. (photo by Jim Shaw Photography)