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UMass Boston students walked. in silence to remember those lost to cancer
April 29, 2016

Family, Coworkers Inspire Participants in UMass Boston’s First Relay for Life


  • Boston

The students, faculty, and staff who took laps around the Clark Athletic Center gym on Tuesday all had their personal reasons for taking part in UMass Boston’s first Relay for Life event, which raised $10,000 for the American Cancer Society.

“All of us have someone in our families or in our lives who has been touched by cancer,” Chancellor J. Keith Motley said in his opening remarks.

Event sponsor Jill Macoska’s parents both passed away from cancer. She is director of UMass Boston’s Center for Personalized Cancer Therapy, where professors, staff, and students work to identify molecular markers that will give doctors the information they need to determine the best course of cancer treatment.

“I think that’s always at the forefront of what we’re trying to do in cancer: Keep tumors from happening and when they do happen, keep them from killing people,” Macoska said.

Macoska and Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine McCusker, captain of the “I Heart the Biology Department” team, are past recipients of research grants from the American Cancer Society. They spoke to the importance of an event that supports cancer research.

“Without those funds, we can’t do our research, we can’t train new students in labs, we can’t do all of these wonderful things, including solving really important problems like understanding cancer biology,” McCusker said.

John Drew, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, has taken part in several Relay for Life events in the past. His team, the Campus Center Crusaders (C3), were easy to spot with their orange capes. Drew says they’ll be back next year.

The Campus Center Crusaders team walks for cancer research

Yvonne Vaillancourt, director of laboratories for the Biology Department, led the Super Techs team, made up of the staff that set up biology labs for classes. Walking alongside senior biology major Malyun Abdi and Sherlyn Louissaint '14, team member Samantha Rassler wore a caregiver’s sash for her aunt, who has battled cancer, and her mom, who is battling melanoma.

The Super Techs team

The team members of Resilience were there for their team captain and coworker, Alexandrine Policar, who learned she had breast cancer last June—a week before she was to leave for Haiti for the second part of her Fulbright fellowship. She had to start chemotherapy and radiation right away, and couldn’t travel. The treatment ended a month ago, and three weeks ago, Policar returned to her job doing special projects for ITEdTech and Learning Commons. The first email she saw was from Macoska.

“I was telling Jill, ‘I don’t know if I can consider myself a survivor,’ and she said, ‘You’re here. You’re a survivor.’ But I still have a long road ahead, and as I keep on telling people, I’m looking for my identity because I don’t know what it’s going to be, and that’s the scary part,” Policar said.

Policar formed a team and was the first one to complete the Survivors Lap that opened up the event—she was right behind the banner.

Alexandrine Policar is first in line for the Survivors Lap

“I couldn’t go through all of this without using my voice,” Policar said. “And I’m not going to stop. I want to use my story – to show people [ZH1] that at the end of the tunnel there is light. Even though sometimes you suffer – you go through all the pain and suffering when you go through chemo you can’t eat, you can’t taste, but you can still see the light.”

At the midway point of the event, Policar and the other participants walked in silence for two laps, luminaries lighting the way, to remember those lost to cancer, honor those who have survived, and support those still battling.

Policar has received an extension for her Fulbright, and has until 2017 to complete it. She’s hoping to go back to Haiti to finalize her report on using technology to decentralize education and open up opportunities for students outside the capital of Port-au-Prince. She’d also like to implement her recommendations.