By Mike Grenier
It's become a Boston Marathon tradition. Every year, members of the Mass. General Pediatric Oncology team in the Boston Marathon are individually paired with a cancer patient.
It makes a lot of sense to do it that way. Running 26.2 miles for a good cause is already a noble enterprise, but doing it on behalf of a single patient personalizes the experience in a very intense way.
Dan Santanello of Swampscott, who ran the Boston Marathon for 12 consecutive years, never had trouble identifying closely with the concept of a partner/patient. He didn't have to search too far for a patient, either.
His daughter, Kristin, was diagnosed with Acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was five years old in 1997. Fortunately for the Santanello family, Kristin's leukemia was detected early during a routine visit to a dentist. The cancer soon went into remission, but Santanello still had to go through chemotherapy for two years as a young child.
"The cancer was in my bloodstream," said Santanello, now a 19-year-old sophomore at Salem State University. "I didn't understand everything at that age and I remember getting sick after chemo treatments, but I always tried to be positive.
"I was just a regular kid — didn't want to be any different. I had no hair, but my best friend had baseball caps and I always wore hats. And I was daddy's little girl."
"Daddy" Santanello, who had played hockey at Swampscott and at Brown University, was so taken by the level of care his daughter received that he began running the Boston Marathon to raise money for the Mass. General Pediatric Oncology/Hematology unit.
Over the years, Santanello personally raised more than $400,000 for the cause as part of the hospital's team of runners, but this year he passed the torch to his daughter. Kristin Santanello will make history as the first ALL patient ever to run Boston for Mass. General's pediatric oncology team when she makes her marathon debut next Monday.
"Kristin is the one who deserves the spotlight now," said Dan Santanello, who turned 51 recently. "She's remarkably tough and gritty. She would eat nails. She's a great daughter and I'm extremely proud of her. She's turned into a magnificent young woman."
"It's not a death sentence"
A 2009 Swampscott High graduate, Santanello has a field hockey and lacrosse background. She was the fourth-leading scorer for the Salem State field hockey team last fall and is in good shape, but the marathon will be a completely different type of experience.
She'll take her cue from her dad. If she gets mentally or physically fatigued, she'll think about how her father got through the marathon for a dozen years even though he wasn't a natural runner.
"When my d ad decided to run the marathon, I would always look forward to seeing him do it," said Santanello. "He wanted to somehow feel what I was going through as a patient. He'd played hockey but he wasn't a runner, so I don't think it was easy for him.
"We've always had a special bond. My Dad raised so much money and it went directly to Mass. General Pediatric Oncology. The fact that I can help now — it's the least I can do."
Dan Santanello was one of the 10 founders of the Mass. General team, which has grown to more than 100 members who combine to generate in the vicinity of $1 million annually for the cause. One of the other team founders was Dr. Howard Weinstock of Newton, who will run with Kristin next Monday.
"He was one of the guys who saved my life," Kristin said of Dr. Weinstock. "It's always been my dream to run with him."
Like her father, Kristin has become an active fundraiser for the cause. She has more than $13,000 in pledges so far and is looking to push that total to $50,000 within a couple of months.
"I'm doing it for all the other kids who have (acute lymphoblastic leukemia)," said Santanello. "I know how most of them feel. It can be tough and depressing, but I want them to know it's not a death sentence. It's how you come out of it and who you become that's important."
Running the Boston Marathon is just one part of Santanello's ambitious plan when it comes to dealing with ALL. She is majoring in biomedical science at Salem State and her ultimate goal is to help eradicate this type of cancer, which affects mostly children.
"I've never run 26 miles, but I know I'll finish the Boston Marathon because it's my dream," said Santanello. "I don't care what my time is. Just the fact that I get to participate with my team and be a leader for the kids is a big thing.
"The cure rate for kids (with ALL) was 90 percent when I had it and now it's even higher. I'm going to go into that field when I'm finished school because I want to see every kid cured."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Cancer survivor Kristin Santanello of Swampscott will run her first Boston Marathon next Monday for children who have Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. If you want to help with a donation, you can go to the following site: https://give.massgeneral.org/k_santanello