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The RUSH of giving back: Championing a Cure

Cancer had always been one of Gert Nesin’s greatest fears, and with good reason: she lost her dad to leukemia and watched two sisters battle breast cancer. Given her family history, she expected the worst when the call came five years ago to schedule a follow-up to her routine mammogram. Her worries were confirmed days later when she was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer, a particularly aggressive and fast-growing form of the disease.

The Road to Recovery
Gert, a teacher at Leonard Middle School in Old Town, was diagnosed at the end of July 2013, and had surgery in August, just before the start of school. She quickly put a plan together to reveal her diagnosis to her students and arrange for a long-term substitute teacher to fill in for part of the year.

Her care team was led by two Eastern Maine Medical Center doctors who she would come to trust with her life: breast surgeon Susan O’Connor, MD, and oncologist Merrill Garrett, MD. They guided her through a treatment plan that included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. She credits her doctors, the entire team at EMMC Cancer Care, and a medication called Trastuzumab (Herceptin) for saving her life.

New drugs come to market only after years of research and testing. With donor support, EMMC Cancer Care contributes to research by offering dozens of adult and pediatric clinical trials for a variety of cancer types and stages of disease. Patients who choose to participate are shaping a new era of cancer treatment, which will save countless lives in the future.

Her students rally
Five years after her breast cancer diagnosis, Gert is giving back so others will have the best chance of overcoming the disease. She leads Team RUSH (Remember, Uplift, Support, Honor), an EMMC Champion the Cure Challenge team comprised of Leonard Middle School students, staff, and supporters.

Olivia Neely, who will soon begin her eighth-grade year, jumped at the chance to join Team RUSH because cancer has hurt her family so much over the years. Olivia’s great grandmother lost her fight with breast cancer two years ago, her cousin recently succumbed to lung cancer and leukemia, and her nana is currently battling cancer. Olivia has found energy in coming together with others who are dedicated to a common cause. “Cancer can affect everyone around you,” said Olivia. “It feels awesome to come together like a family.”

Participation on Team RUSH is a service learning opportunity for Olivia and other students who discover the power of philanthropy, learn about cancer, and plan fundraising events. In March, Olivia, a clarinet and tenor saxophone player in the Leonard Middle School Symphonic Band, performed in Concert for a Cure at the University of Maine’s Collins Center for the Arts to raise money for EMMC Champion the Cure Challenge. Olivia and her teammates have also organized a school dance, created custom-designed T-shirts, and sold raffle tickets at a local restaurant to support the event. Olivia, who’s been inspired by Gert’s journey, says her experience with Team RUSH has reinforced her interest in becoming a teacher and giving back to the community.

“I want to be a teacher and to fight for what I believe in, because I feel like I can make an impact one way or another, even if it’s small,” she said. Olivia adds that Team RUSH, other school activities, and Girl Scouts have provided her with motivation to take action. Olivia’s enthusiasm matches Gert’s passion for EMMC Champion the Cure Challenge, a cause that is important to Gert because she wants others to experience the same quality, compassionate care she received.

“The nurses and doctors know you by name; they are so friendly and supportive. I trusted them with my care, so I didn’t have to worry all the time. I was able to teach all day and then get treatment at a place where I felt comfortable and well cared for,” she added.

Taking the Challenge
Gert, a member of the EMMC Champion the Cure Challenge leadership team, spends the week before the event folding T-shirts, helping with registration, setting up the event site, and doing whatever else is needed to prepare for a successful event. She’s ridden the 25-mile cycle route on a tandem bike with her brother, and in recent years, she’s volunteered on the 5K and 10K walk/run routes. This year, you’ll likely see her at the finish line, cheering on fellow survivors and supporters who will join to walk, run, cycle, and ride for survivors, friends and family members who have been lost, and those who will fight cancer in the future. She will be joined by Olivia, who plans to tackle the 10K walk/run route, and the rest of Team RUSH. Event day is always a special time for Gert, who gains strength from doing something about a problem that seems less insurmountable when taken on together.

“Every year, I can’t sleep the night before because I’m so excited about going there,” she said. “I remember my first time, being surrounded by survivors of every age and ability. It was so powerful for me, standing at the finish line and cheering people on as they came back through. As I’ve gotten more involved in it, it has given me a power that I’ve never had, that I never would have had.”

Make a difference
EMHS employees and volunteers are invited to start a team to participate in the ninth annual walk/run/ride event on August 18, the Penobscot Paddle on September 15, and the Horseback Trail Ride on October 13. To learn more, please visit