Tenth Annual Dolphins Cancer Challenge Attracts Record Number of Participants and Volunteers

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A sunny but cool South Florida Saturday — perfect weather for riding, running or walking — drew a record 6,000 participants and volunteers (some of whom arrived at 4 a.m.), to the tenth annual Dolphins Cancer Challenge (DCC) to raise money for cancer research at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, a part of UHealth – the University of Miami Health System.

From left, David Tuaty, Dylan Tuaty, Paul Tuaty, Hilit Mechaber, M.D., Marlo Tuaty, Manual Cascales, Vivian Mechaber (Sylvester patient), Alex Mechaber, M.D., Amanda Mechaber and Gabi Mechaber.

In addition, more than 230 cancer survivors participated in the day’s events. One of them was Vivian Mechaber.

From the moment she learned she had endometrial cancer last May, and through months of treatment at Sylvester, Mechaber has been strong and determined to prevail, thanks in large part to the support of her family. That strength and support made it possible for the entire family to gather Saturday morning and complete the DCC’s 5K walk/run.

“I said for this race I’m going to be well enough to walk myself,” Mechaber said. “And here I am! I want to tell people who have cancer not to give up.” She is forever grateful to her Sylvester doctors, including gynecologic oncologist Joseph Pearson, M.D.

Cheering her on at the DCC were her son, Alex J. Mechaber, M.D., senior associate dean for undergraduate medical education at the Miller School of Medicine and Bernard J. Fogel Chair in Medical Education, his wife Hilit Mechaber, M.D., associate dean for student services, his sister Marlo Tuaty and their families.

“I’m here to help and support my grandmother in this tough time,” said 17-year-old Paul Tuaty, who often joined his grandmother for her chemotherapy sessions at Sylvester. His brother Dylan and their cousins, Amanda and Gabi Mechaber, provided invaluable encouragement, as well.

“My whole support system is with me all the time, even for the office visits,” Vivian Mechaber said. “I have to see them graduate high school, and maybe graduate college too, and see some weddings.

“I have a plan for my life!”

From left, Scott Hemingway, Ingrid Miranda, Scott Stiepleman and Scott Denham.

She wasn’t alone. Another spirited survivor walking the 5K as a first-timer was Sharon Khan-Dollinger, a member of Team Walgreens, who was diagnosed with cancer a decade ago. “I am a survivor thanks to support from my family, friends and colleagues,” she said. “It’s so important for us to support Sylvester’s cancer research.”

Others rode, ran or walked in honor of family and friends.

Benjamin Thomas, a business banking associate at Bank of America, was among a dozen community volunteers from the bank. “I have several cancer survivors in my family, so it was great to take part in the DCC,” he said. “It’s an event that brings hope and strength to survivors and their families.”

Ana King came to the DCC to support her husband Aaron, who was riding in the Special Compass bicycle event (pulling a disabled person behind him). “My mother-in-law passed from cancer three years ago, and we’ve been taking part ever since,” she said.

About 20 real estate professionals from The Keyes Company’s Coral Spring office, took part in the DCC this year. “I ride to honor my daughter’s mother, who passed from liver cancer four years ago,” said Scott Stiepleman, a sales associate. “Let’s get rid of cancer once and for all!”

Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert welcomed the 5K participants to his city, the home of Hard Rock Stadium.

“Cancer affects us all,” he told the crowd. “More than anything, I appreciate you all being here today.

“We can beat this,” he said. “We are stronger than cancer.”

An early start

Beating cancer meant an early start for many riders. The first cyclists left Hard Rock Stadium at 6 a.m. to ride the Hurricane Hundred, presented by Ultimate Software. That 100-mile ride was followed by the 52-mile Boca Ride, presented by Amgen, which left at 7:30 a.m. from Florida Atlantic University. The 35-mile Miami Ride, presented by Carnival Foundation, left at 8:15 a.m. from the Watsco Center on UM’s Coral Gables campus. The 25-mile Fort Lauderdale Ride, presented by AutoNation, left at 9:15 a.m. from Holiday Park. The 14-mile Dolphins Ride, presented by the Harcourt M. and Virginia W. Sylvester Foundation, left at 10 a.m. from Dolphins Training Camp. All rides ended at Hard Rock Stadium. The DCC 5K run/walk, presented by Ambetter, which began and ended at Hard Rock Stadium, started at 9 a.m.

Sharon Khan-Dollinger, center, with nephew Michael Sarkar, left, and husband Richard Blackburn, right.

Jacqueline Travisano, Ed.D., executive vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Miami, and chair of the DCC, welcomed the enthusiastic crowd of runners and walkers. “Good morning cancer fighters! We are so grateful to each and every one of you,” she said. “The funds that we raise matter — they matter to our patients, they matter to our doctors, and they matter to our future.”

She was joined by Hilarie Bass, chair of the University of Miami Board of Trustees. “I’m here today to support the incredible University of Miami team,” she said. “I came out to support Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. This is a wonderful event and it’s so great to see the entire community support our drive to cure cancer.”

Alberto Caban-Martinez, D.O., Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of public health sciences and deputy director of Sylvester’s Firefighter Initiative, participated in the 5K with firefighters in uniform. “This is a really special event for us at the Firefighter Cancer Initiative, where we get to walk hand in hand with our firefighters to respect their efforts to keep our community safe, and to share our commitment to protect them from cancer,” he said. “It’s great to partner with them in the fight to stop cancer in the fire service. And we’ve been able to elevate the work we’re doing at the state level to different departments around the country.”

Joining the team was Johanna Garibaldi, the nurse navigator for the Firefighter Cancer Initiative, who coordinates care for firefighters with a cancer diagnosis and also works in prevention and wellness. “I am a paramedic,” she said. “I was in a fire department until recently, so this is very personal. I take it to heart — these are my brothers and sisters, so I’m here to help them all in any way I can.”

Leadership participation

Leadership from across the health system and the medical school participated in the DCC.

“This is a wonderful event for patients that we all touch,” said Eduardo C. Alfonso, M.D., director of Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. “These are cancer patients, and no matter what specialty, what research, or what level of education you participate in, cancer is the leading disease that we all confront.”

He was talking after the walk with surgery chair Omaida Velazquez, M.D. “I told one of the kids on the 5K walk, we’re walking today to save lives,” she said. “We’re raising money to save lives, to cure cancer. We’re all in this together.”

Erin Kobetz, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate director for population science and cancer disparity at Sylvester and UM’s co-vice provost for research, founded the Firefighter Cancer Initiative and joined the DCC participants Saturday morning. She expressed gratitude for the growth of the event over the past 10 years.

“There are more riders, more walkers, more runners,” she said. “There is an even larger outpouring of community support for Sylvester’s mission, and how we are in pursuit of a cure for cancer through innovative research to improve prevention, early detection and treatment.

The end of cancer is not something that any of us are going to cross the finish line on alone. So having the community together shores us up as a cancer center, to keep us committed to our mission and focused, and it helps us recognize that we go together.”

Messages of thanks

Later in the day, Dr. Travisano reflected on her dedication to the DCC. “It’s very personal to me because I’ve lost very significant people in my life to cancer,” she said. “Cancer does not discriminate, and I just want to make sure nobody else has to lose a friend or a family member or someone that they love. And I think the only way that’s going to happen is through academic research into cancer treatments and cures.”

Sylvester Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., center, and fellow riders cross the Hurricane Hundred finish line in a shower of confetti.

Speakers at the afternoon closing ceremony echoed her thoughts. UM President Julio Frenk thanked DCC participants, family members and volunteers for their support. “As the proud husband of a breast cancer survivor, this event means a great deal to me,” he said. “Together, we have created a spirit of community around our cherished goal – giving patients the gift of life and freedom from the pain and suffering that comes from fighting cancer.”

Frenk also thanked Stuart Miller, the Miami Dolphins Foundation and the captains of the UM teams.

Tom Garfinkel, vice chairman, president and CEO of the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium, said he was very proud of Sylvester’s gaining the National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation last year. He said the 10th annual DCC had the most fundraising participants ever. Collectively they raised about $4.89 million “and counting” this year.

“Whether you cycled, ran or walked, thank you for being cancer fighters,” he said. “Remember that you don’t have to have cancer to fight cancer. It will impact your life at some point.”

Sylvester Director Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., took the stage after completing the Hurricane Hundred, along with three members of the Sylvester Board of Overseers, Eric Feder, Craig Robins and John Elwaw.

“There was great camaraderie throughout the day, making this the best DCC yet,” he said. “We are so grateful for this incredible partnership with the Miami Dolphins. With the support of our community we have been able to cure an ever-increasing number of patients with cancer over the past 10 years and develop new more effective approaches to preventing cancer. We look forward to even more cancer breakthroughs as a result of the funds raised through the Dolphins Cancer Challenge.”

The DCC was founded in 2010 as the Miami Dolphins Foundation’s signature health impact initiative, and it has become the largest fundraising event in the National Football League. The DCC’s purpose is to improve people’s lives through financial support for innovative cancer research at Sylvester, South Florida’s only National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center. Sylvester is now among the top cancer centers in the United States and joins a highly select group as one of only two NCI-designated cancer centers in the state of Florida and one of just 71 across the nation. Since its inception, the DCC has raised more than $32.5 million, donating 100% of participant-raised funds to Sylvester.

For more information on the DCC, visit www.DolphinsCancerChallenge.com. For more information on Sylvester, visit https://umiamihealth.org/sylvester-comprehensive-cancer-center.