Maria MacLellan’s sister-in-law introduced her to Kathleen Gandy in New Orleans, LA in 2002. “I still see her with a big smile on her face and with a beignet and powdered sugar. We found a restaurant called ‘Sweet Kathleen’s’ and that’s just was she was: the sweetest thing in the world,” Maria remembers. Kathleen’s battle with pancreatic cancer inspired Maria to run the Dallas Half-Marathon in December with the Project Purple team.
“The first person I ever ‘knew’ who had pancreatic cancer was Michael Landon,” Maria says. “I loved him and was devastated when he passed away.” Her first experience with pancreatic cancer would not be her last, unfortunately. Maria found her new friend, Kathleen, to be kind and fun to be around. Every time she visited her family, she spent time with Kathleen. “Kathleen was a professor. She had a PhD and taught accounting. She was always jubilant and would find reasons to praise people. She had a lot of faith and a lot of energy. People were always excited to see her. Everyone claimed to be her ‘sister’ because she was so special to everyone.”
Kathleen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after experiencing abdominal pain and digestive issues on Memorial Weekend in 2012. This was not the first time the cancer had impacted her family. Kathleen had lost her father and an uncle to the illness years before. Always one to live life to the fullest, Kathleen got married shortly after she was diagnosed. She fought her illness for as long as her body was able. Unfortunately, Kathleen passed away as a result of her disease on New Year’s Eve of 2013, leaving behind her husband and her two children. She was only 49-years-old and never had the opportunity to meet her two grandchildren.
“Kathleen had always been a public person until she became ill from the chemotherapy,” Maria explains. “Then, she began pulling back. It was hard because she had always been so encouraging of others and we all wanted to be there for her.”
Even after her passing, Kathleen continues to make a positive mark on the world. The “Gandy Impact Foundation” was formed in her honor. Every year, the foundation gives out scholarships, funds medical research and provides financial support to groups in the community. (More information can be found here: http://www.gandyimpact.org/index.html )
In 2012, Maria was a spectator at a race in Fairfield, CT when she first learned of Project Purple. She saw the Project Purple table set up and spoke to founder Dino Verrelli’s family. Dino was running the race, and his family told Maria, “Look for the guy in the purple cape!” Maria recalls, “I cheered for everyone wearing purple that day!”
Maria ran track in high school. “I ran 40 years ago,” she says. But, as she got to know Dino and followed his races over the year following their initial meeting, she decided that she wanted to run with Project Purple. She had tried getting back into running previously but the habit did not stick. She made the conscious decision that she wanted to become a runner. This time, she was committed to her running routine and used the fact that she was running for Project Purple as her motivation. She even prayed as she ran, drawing on her religious beliefs to give her the strength that she needed to get through her training runs.
In the lead up to her half-marathon, Maria ran some 5ks and even a ten-mile training run. She continued to train when she traveled to France over the summer. Maria was incredibly dedicated to her training and felt optimistic going in to her half-marathon.
In December, 2015, Maria fulfilled her goal of running the Dallas half-marathon with the Project Purple team. “The start of my first half marathon was exciting. There were crowds cheering and waving signs. That used to be me. Now I was one of the runners. I tried to draw on the excitement yet keep my pace controlled,” she says. Because one of Kathleen’s sayings was, “Oh my stars”, Maria filled a playlist with songs that referenced stars to help get her through the race. “At one port-a-potty/ hydration station, a volunteer asked us about our Project Purple shirts. We told her we were running to support a cure for pancreatic cancer. She told us her mother died of pancreatic cancer. This poignant encounter made the half-marathon take on more meaning just then.” Towards the end of the race, Maria’s knees tightened up, but she soldiered on to the finish. “I didn’t have a pace time to brag about but I was proud to run for Project Purple with my star Kathleen in my heart,” Maria says.