Alyssa Romano has traveled all over the country, living in several different states and time zones. However, her connection to Long Island, NY runs deep. It has always been a touchstone for her, and not just because it was the place she grew up. Her family, especially her uncle, John, has always been her support system. So, when her uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020, Romano’s world turned upside down.
“He was so reliable,” Romano remembers. “You knew if you needed something, he would be there. There was never a question of if he couldn’t make it, he always found a way. He was a rock for everybody. I didn’t know how he could be that for so many people. He was just a constant, good soul that everyone could depend on.”
After her uncle’s passing, Romano has been taking her time to heal and find different ways to make an impact on others the same way her uncle had. Now, as part of this journey, Romano will be taking on the challenge of running the New York City Marathon with Project Purple to honor her uncle and take the opportunity to run one last marathon.
Note: If you would like to donate to Alyssa’s fundraising page, click here.
Take the Time
Uncle John was a steady presence for many people. She remembers going out to see her uncle on the east end of Long Island. He would take her out on his boat and sail the Peconic Bay. It was always a time when Romano could vent, laugh, or just hang out.
“We would go out there all the time when I was younger,” Romano said about those trips. “It was like my escape.”
As Romano grew older and got into her career, she began to take the opportunity to travel around the country. She bounced around from house to house and state to state, however, her uncle always remained a constant presence in her life. As a man of many talents, she often asked for advice on how to spruce up her new place. Everywhere she lived, Uncle John had a hand in making the house feel like a home.
“We spent a lot of the time crafting around my house,” Romano explained. “I watched him do all these things and I was like, ‘I don’t know how you did that.’ He made me a beautiful barn door once but there was an inch gap between the ceiling and the sliding rails, and it was just impossible to get it to fit. But, as always, he figured it out and I don’t think anyone else could have gotten it done.”
So, when John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in Summer 2020, Romano did everything she could to support the man who had always been there for her.
“I just wanted to keep him company and remind him of who he was,” said Romano, “he was always like a father figure to me.”
Romano can’t remember exactly how her uncle received his diagnosis, or even when his symptoms started, but she will always remember the day she found out about how serious his condition really was.
“I was randomly going out to the east end of Long Island with my friend,” Romano recounts, “and I was like, ‘Oh let’s stop by my aunt and uncle’s, we’ll bring flowers and say hi.’ And my dad pulled me aside and was like, ‘Let me talk to you.’ He told me that they had gotten a diagnosis that wasn’t good the day before. I went out there anyway and dropped off flowers, I wanted to make sure I showed up no matter what.”
During his diagnosis, Romano always tried to connect with her uncle and provide him with any comfort she could. Thankfully, her aunt, a nurse by trade, was able to advocate for her husband during his treatments, leaving the rest of the family to do whatever they could to lift his spirits. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic placed some restrictions on her, Romano remembers seeing her uncle several times throughout his diagnosis.
“I think this is a sign of any good relationship; you can not see somebody for a year and then you see them it’s like nothing changed,” Romano explained when thinking about her visits with her uncle. “I could pick up the phone at any point in the day or night, and even though time passes, the conversations just flow. That’s how it was with my uncle and I.”
Towards the end of his life, Romano took as much time as she could to spend with her uncle. She remembers playing Connect 4 in the hospital with him, doing everything she could think of to take his mind off the disease.
Sadly, her uncle passed away in September of 2021. Since his passing, Romano has come to appreciate the time she had with her uncle.
“It’s a reminder that life is short and you should really spend the time with the people you want to spend the time with,” said Romano. “If you’re ever second-guessing, or feel like ‘I don’t want to make that trip,’ or ‘that feels like too much,’ just do it. You don’t know what can be your last time together.”
Now, she is taking her grief over her uncle’s passing and channeling it into something positive; running to spread awareness for the disease that took her uncle.
Running for a Purpose
As a collegiate athlete, Romano grew up with the competition and physical activity that came with playing sports. She turned to running after college to fill in that gap for herself and immediately fell in love.
“It’s the only time that I get to myself and I can really zone out or think about myself with no distractions,” Romano said. “I turn my phone on do-not-disturb and I listen to my music and I just go. I enjoy it because I get to focus in on me and I don’t get to do that very often throughout the day.”
Now, she’s run five marathons, two of which have been the New York Marathon. This year, she decided to run in New York for a third time with one of her closest friends who was also one of her college teammates. But this time, she wanted to do something special for what she believes will likely be her last race.
“I was like, ‘okay if I’m going to run this, especially now that I’m older and have taken some time off running, the training is going to be brutal,”’ Romano explained when describing her thought process of signing up for New York. “‘I need to really have something to motivate me. And it was kind of a no-brainer that [Project Purple] was going to be it.”’
Romano has run with various charities in the past. She has always found it a positive experience to not just run, but run for the betterment of the community.
“Running for a charity is so motivating,” said Romano, “To have a team around you, to know you are doing something for a bigger cause when you’re throwing your body out into the blistering heat at five in the morning on a Saturday, you know it’s for something bigger.”
Romano found Project Purple through the New York City marathon website. She was drawn to not only their mission but also to their programs to fund research for early detection. She believes that raising funds for research is key to beating this disease.
“I remember towards the end [of my uncle’s life], it felt like there was just so much information coming out, even within weeks, about breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer treatments. I know we are closer to finding resources to prevent or slow down this disease. Fundraising for this just gives me hope that there is a true change that can happen. We’re opening new doors every day, and I want to keep opening those doors.”
She loves that not only does Project Purple work to fund research for early detection, but the community also supports its runners with uplifting content that helps them push forward in their training.
“The leaderboard every week of who’s fundraised and the progress people have made each week – all that is fun to see,” Romano describes. “It’s just the small things that help you throughout the week, especially after you’ve done a long, hot run and you’re like, ‘that sucked,’ and then you get into your email and it’s a reminder, ‘okay this is why I’m doing it.’”
Romano is now not only excited to run New York City again but also to run it with an organization she believes will make a difference in the fight against the disease that took her uncle.
No Time Like the Present
Romano stated that even though she loves running, she is getting to the point where her body cannot support the heavy endurance training necessary to run a marathon.
“Now that I’m older, I can’t run as much,” Romano explains. “I really need to add spin or yoga or weight lifting because the mileage on those knees is a little rough, so I’ve been incorporating a lot more cross-training into this training routine than I have before.”
It’s looking like this marathon will likely be her last. She’s come to realize, both through her uncle’s passing and with training for this marathon, that there really is no time like the present.
“Soak up as much time as you can with your loved ones because it goes fast,” Romano advises. “I created a book with all these photos from the past, and I created it right away so when we could enjoy it together, and not waiting until the end to do that. Do something you can do together, create something that you’ll have, that will help you through it all versus when they’re gone.”
Romano is not wasting any time now. She’s ready to make New York City her best marathon to date.
If you are interested in supporting Alyssa’s fundraising goals, please visit her fundraising page. For more information about how you can get involved with Project Purple, please click here. Thank you to Alyssa and all those running to support our mission of a world without pancreatic cancer.