Club members give up Saturdays to help fellow runner battling stage 4 breast cancer

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 25, 2012

By Emily Ford
ROCKWELL — After 15 marathons, including two in Athens, Greece, Molly Connor decided last year to stop competing in the grueling 26-mile events.
At age 55, Connor told family and friends she was done with the pounding and pain associated with long-distance running.
Then, in June, Connor found a lump under her left arm. Because it caused pain, Connor was convinced she had a swollen gland, not a tumor.
She’d always heard that breast cancer “doesn’t hurt.”
A mammogram showed a mass that needed to come out, doctors said. Connor agreed but didn’t think twice about heading out for a planned a three-week RV road trip with husband Bob Connor.
She scheduled a biopsy for the day after she was due to return, July 9.
That was a Monday.
On Thursday, Connor heard the words that would turn her world upside down — breast cancer.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was in total shock,” she said. “It was the worst day of my life.”
Life for the Salisbury VA Medical Center administrative officer became a whirlwind of doctor appointments and high-tech scans, which showed an additional 9-millimeter spot on her lung and 3-millimeter spot on her carotid artery.
The cancer had spread, and specialists declared Connor’s condition a stage 4.
She began chemotherapy the next day.
The woman who typically logs 1,000 miles a year in her running shoes now tires after a three-mile walk.
About a week after her diagnosis, Connor volunteered at the Greenway 5K. Her mind was too scattered for her usual post at the finish line, so she helped out in other areas.
Unexpectedly, Connor had an urge to enter the race. She had not run in months, suffering symptoms she now knows were due to the disease.
“I looked at the list of people in my age group and thought I didn’t stand a chance,” she said.
Thirty-six minutes later, she came in first among five women ages 55 to 59.
The empowerment of that 3.1-mile run set Connor’s resolve to battle cancer and win.
“I said, OK, there is fight left in me,” she said. “I have a competitive edge, and I can do this.”
The experience also altered her decision to abandon much longer runs.
“There is another marathon in me when this is over,” Connor said.
• • •
In 2011, Connor won the Lifetime Achievement Award from Salisbury Rowan Runners.
She received the honor not just for logging miles but for 18 years of contributing to the club in every manner possible — board member, race day volunteer, fundraiser, advocate, mentor.
Now, the club is paying Connor back.
For the past three Saturdays, about 25 runners, plus friends and family members, have spent hours at Connor’s Rockwell home, tackling the summer project she had planned to do but now can’t.
Connor’s yard, once a showplace, had become an eyesore. Weeds and vines had taken over the tennis court so completely that volunteers were shocked to find a full-sized basketball goal underneath the growth.
Armed with rakes and chainsaws, they whacked, cut and trimmed trees, bushes and vines until they had a pile of debris 10 feet high and twice as wide. It was the third time in as many weeks that the pile had reached those dimensions, burned away each Saturday afternoon.
When Connor walked outside at noon and saw the floor of her tennis court for the first time in years, she cried.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s more than I ever expected.”
When David Freeze, president of Salisbury Rowan Runners, asked a month ago how the group could help, Connor mentioned the yard. She meant mowing the lawn.
But Freeze wanted to do more — the yard, the tennis court, the pool deck. The club began its biggest volunteer project to date.
Freeze sent emails to 220 members explaining the situation. Runner Brunetta Franklin read the appeal and responded, even though she had never met Connor.
“All I needed to see was ‘needs help,’ ‘breast cancer’ and ‘stage 4,’ ” Franklin said. “Nothing I have to do in my life is more important than coming out here to help.”
Wearing a T-shirt decorated with pink ribbons and “Team Molly” by 10-year-old Julian Malnar, Connor met Franklin for the first time Saturday.
• • •
Removing stress and recreating an oasis for Connor motivated many people who worked and sweated this weekend.
“She’s going through a tough time, and we want to make it so when she walks outside, it looks nice and it’s not so overwhelming,” Elaine Brown said. “So she can relax and get well.”
Connor and her husband have lived in the Rockwell home for 20 years. Siblings Tom Wade of Maine and Rosemarie Harter of South Carolina kept Connor company Saturday while Tosha, a two-year-old golden retriever and Australian shepherd mix, greeted volunteers.
Inside, a tandem stroller stood ready for Connor’s grandchildren, ages two years and three weeks, to visit from Kannapolis, where son Bobby Teel lives.
Connor seemed in disbelief at the outpouring of support since her diagnosis.
In addition to the Salisbury Rowan Runners, the Run 4:45 A.M. group that meets at Johnny’s in Rockwell — 14 strong on a good day — has accompanied Connor on her morning walks, forgoing their run and adopting a slower pace.
Her supper club has mowed her lawn and cleaned her house. Church members at Maupin Avenue Presbyterian Church and VA coworkers take her to appointments.
After Connor’s first chemotherapy treatment, the 4:45 group threw a “Fight for Molly” party. Everyone dressed in camouflage.
Now, halfway through four rough sessions of chemo, Connor needs to remember people are fighting for her.
“This is kicking me, big time,” she said.
She will take a two-week break after the most difficult treatments, then undergo a less toxic chemotherapy weekly for three months.
Connor said her doctor has encouraged her to set a goal, something to focus on when she’s beaten cancer and life can return to normal.
“When this is over, running a marathon will be a piece of cake,” she said. “Because this is the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.