“I can’t emphasize enough how giving and caring she was and how much she gave to other people,” Rene DiPietro says of her Great Aunt Connie. “When my grandma became ill, Connie moved back home so she could take care of her. Losing her was so hard, because she took care of everyone.” Though she was only 16 at the time, Rene clearly remembers the day in 2006 when she walked through the front door and saw her grandmother crying. The news came as a crushing blow: Rene’s Great Aunt Connie had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A tight-knit family of Greek heritage, Rene’s family lived within a couple of miles of each other in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. This was the first time that any form of cancer had affected a close member of Rene’s family. Rene did not understand how challenging pancreatic cancer could be, but she soon learned as she watched the illness ravage the aunt that she loved so deeply. “I saw how the disease took her from being a very fun, outgoing person to taking away her quality of life within a year.” Rene has never forgotten how she watched Connie battle pancreatic cancer. Now, Rene is honoring her aunt’s memory by running in the Big Sur marathon with the Project Purple team.
Connie was 10 years younger than her closest sibling. Rene explains, “Her youth made her ‘the fun aunt’ to my mom. Everyone loved to hang out with her.” When Connie and her future husband Ilias met, they bonded over their common Greek heritage. The couple wed and raised two sons, Frank and Koz, together. Rene remembers, “She became a stay-at-home mom and did everything for her family. She was the most caring and selfless person I ever met. Everything revolved around her family.” Beyond her immediate family, Connie often cared for her extended family. When Rene’s grandmother became ill, for example, Connie also took care of her.
A few years prior to learning she had pancreatic cancer, Connie was diagnosed with diabetes. While most people who have diabetes never develop pancreatic cancer, there is a link between new-onset diabetes and pancreatic cancer in people over the age of 50. Of course, Connie was otherwise healthy, so there was no reason to believe this was anything other than a straight-forward diabetes diagnosis. Within a few years, however, Connie began experiencing stomach pains and digestive issues. She sought medical care but the doctors were unable to come up with an accurate diagnosis. Connie was previously a social worker at Brigham and Women’s hospital and she frequently worked with cancer patients. Even though her doctors could not figure out exactly what was wrong, Connie’s professional background led her to become suspicious that something serious was lurking within her body. Rene says, “She did her own research and she believed that she had cancer. She kind of diagnosed herself.”
In fact, in 2006, Connie learned that she did have something seriously wrong. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rene was only 16 when her Aunt Connie was diagnosed. She does not know many of the details of the diagnostic process because her aunt was reserved and did not share the details of what she was going through. Still, the diagnosis came as a shock to her and her family. There was no family history of pancreatic cancer, and it was difficult for the family to make sense of the news.
What Rene remembers most from this time is how Connie demonstrated grace and dignity in the face of her devastating diagnosis. Always the caretaker, Connie asked for little help and tried to make things easier on her family. When she knew the end was near, she went so far as to make her own funeral arrangements.
Connie fought her illness for as long as she was able. She passed away in March, 2008, leaving behind her husband, Ilias, her sons, Frank and Koz, and their extended family. Sadly, she missed her older son’s wedding by just three months. Rene explains the far-reaching effects of this devastating loss, “Connie missed his wedding. She never got to see her four beautiful grandchildren. She never got to meet her family.”
Rene was young when she lost Connie, but she never forgot about her. Now she is honoring her aunt through an unlikely avenue: her love of running. “I grew up playing sports,” Rene explains, “But I wasn’t very good at them. I played soccer, lacrosse and softball as a kid. I was the cheerleader of the team instead of the all-star.” Rene was dedicated and persistent, however. She decided that she wanted to play lacrosse more seriously, so she started running to get into better condition for her sport. Her hard work paid off and Rene played Lacrosse at a Division 2 school.
Though she did not love running as an adolescent, running has become Rene’s passion. “Running is my go-to activity now. I am not a super strong or super fast runner. However, I can challenge and push myself through my running. I like how, in running, I rely on myself. If I perform well, it is because of the training I have done.”
Rene has completed some half-marathons and is now preparing to fulfill a ‘bucket list’ goal of hers: the full marathon distance. Originally from the Boston area, Rene saw that Project Purple is a charity partner with the Boston Marathon. She first applied to be a part of that team, but was not selected. Elizabeth Mauldin, from the Project Purple home office, reached out to Rene and offered her a spot on the Big Sur team. Rene, who now resides in California with her boyfriend, Mark, decided that running Big Sur made sense. “I am very pleased with how it all worked out. Mark and I made a list of things we wanted to do and on that list was to see the coastal road. Now I am excited because I get to run part of it!”
Rene is currently increasing the distance of her long runs in preparation for the April race. Her family and her boyfriend are very supportive of her efforts to achieve her marathon goals. Rene is excited for the opportunity to run with a charity team in a beautiful location near her new home in California. Most importantly, she is happy for the chance to honor her Aunt Connie, whom she remembers as ‘the shoulder to lean on when you needed anything.’ Please support Rene’s Project Purple fundraising campaign by making a donation at the following link: