By Bob Jackson
Getting into a fight wasn’t exactly what Chrissie Clayton had in mind.
After all, it was the week before Christmas, and she had just celebrated her 40th birthday.
But when she was faced with a fight-or-die situation, she didn’t flinch.
Three days after she turned 40, Clayton was diagnosed with breast cancer, thrusting her into the fight of her life.
“Death never crossed my mind,” the Canfield woman said. “I don’t know why; it just didn’t. I just wanted to know what I had to do so I could get started.”
That was 13 years ago.
On Sunday, Clayton, now 53, was among some 10,000 people downtown for the seventh annual Panerathon at the Covelli Centre. The event, which included a 10K race and a 2-mile fun run/walk, is the Mahoning Valley’s largest fundraising event. It has generated more than $1.6 million to benefit the Joanie Abdu Comprehensive Breast Care Center in Youngstown.
Clayton said a cancerous tumor was discovered during her first mammogram, which she had scheduled since she was turning 40. She had surgery to remove the lump, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“In some respects, I think it was harder for my husband and for my mom,” said Clayton, who works as finance director for the city of Canfield. “They had to see me going through that, and there was nothing they could do. All I had to do was be sick.”
Clayton was laughing and happy Sunday, and she and her family and friends, all sporting T-shirts to support her, lined up for the Panerathon. It was her third year of participation.
Dr. Rashid Abdu, who opened the JACBCC in 2011 in honor of his wife, who died of breast cancer, marveled at the community’s growing response each year.
“What we are seeing here is the spirit of our Valley in its purest form,” Dr. Abdu said. “Giving, generosity, compassion, neighbors helping neighbors – that’s what it’s all about.”
With a sweep of his left arm, he gestured toward the thousands of people who were waiting to begin the race. People of all shapes, sizes, colors and backgrounds.
“Look around you,” he said. “In all the years we have been doing this, with all these people coming out, I have never, ever heard one person say something bad about someone else. No fights or arguments – nothing like that. It’s wonderful.”
Dr. Abdu said the area’s mortality rate from breast cancer historically has been among the highest in the country, largely due to a lack of education about early detection, and a lack of money or insurance for women to get treatment. That’s why the Abdu Center was founded.
“We want to see that number go to being one of the lowest instead of the highest,” he said.
To help with the fight, the Joanie Abdu Mobile Mammography Unit recently was unveiled and on display Sunday. It’s a $1.2 million vehicle that includes a 3-D mammography unit that will allow women to have a state-of-the-art mammogram in the convenience of their own community.
With 3-D technology, doctors can examine breast tissue layer by layer, in multiple views, with fine details being more visible. Those extra views can help doctors better distinguish invasive cancers, especially in women with dense breast tissue. The mobile mammography unit is the only one of its kind in eastern Ohio.
Breast-cancer survivors weren’t the only ones at the Panerathon. John Clemente, 63, of Struthers was diagnosed in November 2006 with myelofibrosis, a rare form of bone-marrow cancer.
“When the doctor said I’d better get things in order because I only had less than a month to live, that was a huge shock,” said Clemente, who walked Sunday with his wife, Marlene, 56.
Fortunately, John’s brother and sister were both matches for potential bone-marrow donors. His brother ended up donating marrow during a procedure at the Cleveland Clinic in 2007.
“Nine years and 27 surgeries later, and I’m still here,” Clemente said with a huge smile. “I’m still running races.”
Covelli Enterprises, with the support of Mercy Health Foundation, underwrites the majority of Panerathon costs each year, so 100 percent of sponsorships and registration fees can be donated directly to the cause.
“Panerathon is my absolute favorite day of the year because we get to see our entire Valley rally around this cause,” said Sam Covelli, owner/operator of Covelli Enterprises. “It’s amazing to see the strides that are being made in breast-cancer outcomes because of the Panerathon.”