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Against the odds: Couple, survivors run for cancer cure

Claremont residents Virginia and Van Garner have been married for 45 years. During the course of their relationship, they have both struggled with and defeated cancer, by means of clinical trials. They have raised more than $280,000 for cancer research and provided care for many patients, including each other. Together, they have run and walked 27,118 miles—more than the circumference of the earth. Now, it is their joint mission to make a cancer a thing of the past—merely a distant memory.

On August 6, 1997, Ms. Garner, then a high school teacher, paid a visit to her doctor for her annual physical. What she discovered left her “shell-shocked.”

“I heard the world leukemia,” Ms. Garner recalled, “and after that I didn’t hear much else.”

Ms. Garner was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), a rare cancer that, according to her, “was not salvageable.”

It was Van Garner who came to the rescue. He assumed the role of caregiver, fixed the food, and learned where everything was in the kitchen.

“I didn’t care of I ate or not,” Ms. Garner said. “But he kept me alive by feeding me.”

More importantly, though, Mr. Garner, then the dean of the College of the Extended University at Cal Poly Pomona and a professor of history, used his skills and connections as a researcher to find a clinical trial at UCLA—one that eventually saved Ms. Garner’s life.

In April of 1999, after about a year of typical cancer treatments and drastic side effects, Ms. Garner swallowed her first life-saving pill: a drug named Gleevec that tackled the molecular cause of cancer and opened the door for many other drugs to do the same.

“I became the first person to swallow it…in the whole world,” she said, adding that April 19 is her “rebirth day.”

It was not until 2000, when she received a flyer in the mail from Team In Training (TNT), a program sponsored by The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), that Ms. Garner discovered her passion in life. She found out that the LLS was a major supplier of grants that helped research the pill that had saved her life.

Although they had no former experience running or walking marathons, Mr. and Ms. Garner became participants in the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) Team in Training Marathon Team.

Accomplishing great feats in not new to the family. Mr. Garner is the grandson of Herman and Bess Garner, who were among the leading families of Claremont at the time they built the Garner House in 1926. In 2001, the house—located in the heart of Claremont at Memorial Park—became a home for Claremont Heritage and a symbol of Claremont’s history.

For the Garners, TNT also seemed like the perfect balance between being healthy and aiding cancer research.

“I was so thankful to feel good again,” Ms. Garner recalled. “Since it was so personal, that meant a lot, too.”

In 2001, soon after discovering TNT, Mr. Garner was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. Ms. Garner now found herself in the role of caregiver, looking after the man who had saved her life. Mr. Garner, on the other hand, found himself a patient and derived inspiration from his wife and her journey.

Mr. Garner continued running and walking marathons during treatment. He was eventually saved by a clinical trial that was ironically funded in part by the LLS. 

“Virginia’s whole experience probably saved my life,” Mr. Garner said, adding that the research and knowledge he garnered over the past few years helped him make an informed decision. He had previously rejected an offer to participate in a clinical trial that later proved to be unsuccessful. The trial that saved his life was the second he was offered, and led to the discovery of a drug named Yervoy that aimed specifically at treating melanoma.

Interlaced within Mr. and Ms. Garners story is the story of a young boy named Tyler Cordova, who was only 5 years old when he met the Garners. He was fighting his own battle against cancer at the time and immediately connected with Mr. Garner, who was doing the same.

Tyler soon became an “honored teammate” for the SGV Team in Training. After several treatments and struggles, Tyler is now “10 looking like a normal 10 year old,” according to Ms. Garner. He recently completed his first 5K race and has been an inspiration to all those who surround him.

As for Mr. and Ms. Garner, they continue to inspire countless lives as well. Since 2000, Ms. Garner has completed 2 full and 30 half-marathons and Mr. Garner has completed 31 full and 49 half-marathons. Ms. Garner now serves on the board of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the LLS and continues to provide support to families struggling with cancer. She, along with Mr. Garner, is currently training and fundraising for the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in Washington, DC on April 28. Together, they have met more than 80 percent of their goal to raise $300,000 for cancer research before this date.

For people struggling with cancer, Mr. and Ms. Garner have a few pieces of advice to offer. It is of utmost importance to be active in your treatment. A doctor can go through his entire career without ever encountering a CML patient, according to Ms. Garner, so it’s important to get in touch with an expert who deals with your certain kind of cancer. As for clinical trials, follow the same rule.

“We believe in clinical trials but you need to be informed,” Mr. Garner said, who was initially offered a trial that failed to achieve success. It is also essential not to isolate yourself and to reach out to an organization such as the LLS that can provide financial and emotional assistance, among many other types of support.

Mr. and Ms. Garner also recognize the critical role of the caregiver.

“It’s hard work and it’s hard on your soul,” Ms. Garner said. Mr. Garner agrees.

“It’s a really hard thing to do…filled with fear.” At the same time, it is your responsibility to help that person and to find all the answers,” he noted. “Educate yourself. You owe it to the person on the other side.”

To help Mr. and Ms. Garner achieve their goal of raising $300,000 by April 28th 2013, visit Ms. Garner’s website at http://pages.teamintraining.org/los/nike whlf13/virginiagarner or Mr. Garner’s website at http://pages.teamintrain ing.org/los/nikewhlf13/vangarner. Online donations will be accepted until May 28th 2013. You can also email Ms. Garner at vgarner@doglover.com to discuss other forms of making a donation.

—Anam Sethi

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