When Keelin Hodgkins was 10 years old, she went to Boston with her beloved Aunt Cassie. A doctor Cassie knew was running the Boston Marathon in honor of patients she had lost. Cassie and Keelin attended the pre-race pasta dinner the night before the marathon, and then watched the marathon on television the next day. The marathon made a big impression on Keelin, and she told her aunt, “One day I am going to run a marathon.” Cassie told Keelin that running a marathon was a big commitment and not something to be taken lightly. Keelin did not know it at the time, but one day she would run a marathon. She would find out that marathon training is a big commitment. Keelin also discovered that running a marathon was a great way to honor of her Aunt Cassie. Keelin lost Cassie, the aunt who she had spent so much time with over the course of her life, to Pancreatic Cancer. Cassie was only 58 years old.
Cassie Ascher had experienced a lot of hardship in her life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1980s, and was told she was told she only had six months to live. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, however, and beat the odds she was given. What was more difficult than dealing with her own illness was dealing with the illness of her son. Cassie’s young son, Jared, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Sadly, the treatments could not save Jared and he passed away just prior to his fifth birthday. The doctor Keelin and Cassie had gone to cheer on in Boston that day had been Jared’s pediatric oncologist.
After suffering such unimaginable heartbreak, many marriages do not survive. So it was after Jared’s passing, Cassie’s first marriage collapsed. The death of a child is the most painful experience that any parent could ever face. Cassie struggled with the pain of that loss for many years. Time and love eventually helped to heal Cassie’s old wounds. Cassie met and married Ken, who Keelin describes as the love of Cassie’s life. Their deep and special bond helped Cassie to heal from the loss and pain she had experienced. In her relationship with Ken, Cassie again began experiencing joy.
Life was well for Cassie and Ken. Cassie’s daughter, Shannon, gave birth to her daughter Sophie. Sophie was Cassie’s first grandchild and there was nothing in the world that Cassie cherished more than Sophie. Sophie brought light and love into Cassie’s life.
In 2009, Cassie was in good health overall but had recently experienced some problems with her balance. After taking a spill, Cassie was sent to the hospital for testing. It was then that the doctors discovered a giant mass in her pancreas. In early February of 2009, Cassie was diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer. The doctors indicated that there was no cure for her illness, but they could attempt palliative chemotherapy. Cassie went through one round of chemo but it made her so sick, she refused further treatment. She told her family, “Don’t be angry. I am going to stop the chemo because the quality of time I have is more important than the quantity.”
Cassie was initially angered by her diagnosis. It did not seem fair. She had experienced so much pain in her life but things were going so well now. She was in love and very happy. Cassie was not going to go quietly. She did not know if she would be around for her actual birthday, so she planned her own “unbirthday” party. She got invitations and put a guest list together for who she wanted in attendance. Cassie was a creative woman who could throw a party like nobody else. She celebrated her unbirthday in style, surrounded by friends and family. Then, on June 2nd, just four months after receiving her diagnosis, Cassie passed away.
Keelin, Cassie’s niece, was very angry about her aunt’s illness. When Keelin was younger, she had lost two relatives on her father’s side of the family to Pancreatic Cancer. Now, at the age of 26, she was able to grasp the gravity of this diagnosis more fully. When the doctors said that there was nothing more they could do, Keelin could not believe it. She was understandably angry at how unfair it all seemed.
Keelin decided she had to do something to channel her anger. She had started running in her early 20s as a way to spend some time with her father. Keelin enjoyed running 5ks and 10ks, but after experiencing a loss of her own, she quit running. When Shannon, Cassie’s daughter, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, Keelin says, “It was a wake-up call. I could not let my grief control me. I had to get back into running and take care of myself.” Keelin recounts how she had always promised Cassie that if anything ever happened to Shannon, Keelin would be there for her. Keelin knew that she had to find her way out of her own grief so that she could take care of herself and be there to support Shannon.
So, Keelin began running again in order to reclaim her own health and as a way to help her process her emotions. Keelin ran the New York City Half-Marathon in 2014 for Project Purple in honor of her Aunt Cassie. Keelin had a fantastic experience and loved running in New York City for the first time. She enjoyed sharing her aunt’s story with people as part of her fundraising efforts. Keelin was surprised by how little people knew about Pancreatic Cancer, so she found educating people about the disease to be a gratifying experience.
Keelin had such a positive experience running the NYC half-marathon on behalf of Project Purple, that she set her sights on running the full New York City Marathon in the fall of 2014. Keelin had run several half-marathons but had never run beyond that distance. To prepare for the race, Keelin gradually increased the length of her long runs. She also ran two other half-marathons in between March and November. Her training went relatively well, except for some knee swelling that forced her to cut back on her running prior to the marathon.
On race day, when Keelin got off of the boat to head to the race start on Staten Island, she felt the wind and wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?” She found herself bundled up and huddled together with the thousands of other runners. As they started the race on the Verrazano Bridge, people were getting blown into one another. Runners shed layers of clothing that turned into projectiles. Keelin said, “It was crazy and surreal. It was the greatest experience of my life!”
At mile four, Keelin began experiencing lateral knee pain that she had never felt before. Her plan had been to run conservatively anyway, but she soon found herself setting intermediary goals. She promised herself she would just try to run to Manhattan. When she hit that goal, she promised herself that she would run to the half-marathon point. At the 15 mile mark, Keelin switched to a combination of running and walking. At mile 18, she could no longer run and knew that she would be walking to the finish line. Keelin was frustrated to be reduced to walking in pain, but she knew that what she was enduring was easier than chemotherapy. Keelin dug deep and thought about the inspiring speech that Pancreatic Cancer fighter Rick Carone had given at the pre-race Project Purple dinner the night before. She knew that she was doing this race for something much bigger than herself, and it propelled her along when the race became difficult for her. She carried the names of cancer fighters with her, and she knew that quitting was not an option. At mile 18, a woman ran by whose name was “Cassie”. She heard people yelling, “Go Cassie! You can do it!” from the sidelines, and Keelin felt it was like a sign from her aunt. Keelin could feel her aunt’s presence around her.
Though she was hobbling at the end, Keelin ultimately finished the New York City Marathon, with her boyfriend Mike cheering her on.
Cassie had told Keelin not to let grief consume her. Keelin says, “Losing my aunt shattered my spirit. I have lost several family members to cancer. To be a part of Project Purple is my way of taking something back that has been taken from me.” Though the New York City Marathon ended up being a challenge for Keelin, she feels that she has unfinished business with the marathon distance. She will be running the Marine Corps Marathon on behalf of Project Purple as her next race, and hopes to come back to NYC for the marathon in the future.
Keelin says that through her loss, she has ended up experiencing so many countless blessings. She explains, “The New York City Marathon was, hands down, one of the best experiences of my life. No matter how many marathons I do in the future, New York will probably always mean the most to me. I learned such much in those 26 miles. That is why I love being a part of Project Purple. It gives a deeper meaning to my running.”