Dr. Al Ciraldo, a general surgeon at Summa Health who also performs breast cancer surgeries, knows all too well the effects of breast cancer.
Ciraldo’s wife of 20 years, Debbie, died in 2001 at the age of 45, leaving behind four young children.
Ciraldo has been participating in the Komen Northeast Ohio Race for a Cure for 22 years — first to support and walk with his wife, then to honor her memory while raising awareness and funds to fight cancer.
In the years since his wife’s death, supporting the race is a way to remember his wife, advocate for self exams, mammograms and screenings and fight for a cure.
"I’ve always believed that all of this early detection — all of that goes away if you have an actual cure," he said. "I’ve got three daughters and I want to keep their awareness high and keep every woman’s awareness high."
At the seventh annual 2018 Komen Northeast Ohio Akron Race for the Cure on Oct. 13, an anticipated 800 to 1,000 participants will walk and run in honor and in memory of loved ones touched by breast cancer.
Individuals and teams raise money to find a cure for the most common form of cancer in women (and which also affects men). According to the Susan G. Komen organization, there are 3.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.
This year’s race marks Ciraldo's 19th year fielding a team called Ciraldo’s Crusaders for the Cure. Susan G. Komen Northeast Ohio chapter officials said for the Akron race alone, Ciraldo’s team has recruited 421 runners and raised nearly $10,000.
This year, he hopes to have 100 and family members.
Susan G. Komen Northeast Ohio Executive Director Sean Shacklett said Ciraldo and his friends and family "epitomize the leadership needed to support families in our community battling breast cancer. He is a determined and passionate advocate and we cannot thank him enough for everything he does for our affiliate."
Worst fears confirmed
Debbie Ciraldo was 39 years old in 1995 when she felt a thickening on her left breast during a self exam.
The young mother of four children ages 3 to 14 at the time got a mammogram. It came back normal.
But her husband also didn’t like the way the change in her breast felt and scheduled a biopsy.
Their worst fears were confirmed.
Debbie had Stage 4 breast cancer and also had many lymph nodes test positive.
She had a single mastectomy and started four rounds of intensive high-dose chemotherapy at a new program at Duke University. While Dr. Ciraldo’s mom cared for the children at their Bath Township home, the couple went to North Carolina for six weeks. She followed up with radiation treatments at Akron City Hospital.
Debbie was always optimistic , Ciraldo said.
"They were talking cure at that time. But with what she had, I knew what the results would be — without anything new she would die," he said.
Ciraldo busied himself "with miles and miles of papers and journals looking" for the best treatment.
Her scans came back cancer-free in 1996.
The family breathed a sigh of relief and started traveling the world. They went to the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta and visited Italy, England and Scotland.
Debbie never acted like she was worried about a cancer recurrence, her husband said. "That was the kind of person she was. Very positive."
But her husband knew otherwise.
"I just knew what the statistics were. I had personal experience with it. I saw people who didn’t make it."
Her cancer came back in March 1999. It had metastasized to her stomach.
Years of chemotherapy "probably gave her a few more years," Ciraldo said."It didn’t give her the cure we were looking for; it gave her some time, which with little kids is important."
Debbie focused on the children, staying active in school activities, fund-raising and even pursuing a master’s degree in geography up until a few months before she died because "she was a life-long learner," said Jessie Licata, the couple's second-youngest child.
Licata, now 30, said the kids weren’t told of the severity of their mom’s cancer, which upset Licata after her mom’s death.
Licata recalls being in about sixth grade and a friend said, "I heard your mom is going to die and if you want to talk about it, I’m here for you."
"I said, ‘What are you talking about? My mom is getting treatment. She’s going to be fine," Licata said.
"I go home and asked my mom, ‘Do you only have six months to live?"
"She said, ‘If I knew I only had 6 months to live, I’d be on an island somewhere. I’m getting treatment, I’m fighting it.’ She didn’t lie," Licata said. But in reality, her mom died within four months.
"You want to believe what you want to believe. Maybe in her mind she was preparing me. To me, a stubborn 12-year-old who can’t imagine life without my mom, she’s good. We’re fighting it. She’s going to be OK."
Debbie Ciraldo died at home on Feb. 15, 2001.
Watching his own wife die of breast cancer made him more empathetic with his patients, Dr. Ciraldo said.
"I could really relate to what they were going through," he said. "But it made it tough – just telling them what they had.
"It was hard discussing what they had to face after how devastating I knew it was on a personal basis. I never used to sit and cry in my office before I had to tell somebody they have cancer."
Racing to remember
Licata, her father and her siblings, Vince Ciraldo, now 35, Vicki Coli, 33, and Allie Ciraldo, 26, "are all so much closer than so many other families. We really are. When people go through tragedy it puts things in perspective; you appreciate each other a lot more.
All of the Ciraldo children and now some spouses and grandchildren — one named after Debbie — come back to town each year for the race. Friends and family also walk or run yearly.
In 1996, Dr. Ciraldo half walked and ran with his wife. In 1997, he tried to run half the 5K event. (There also is one-mile walk).
"After three miles, I was gassed out and for the rest of the week I could barely walk up stairs," he said.
Every year after, he ran a little more, and after his wife’s death, running became an "emotional lift." His competitive streak also came in and the running bug hit. He started with 5ks and now runs half marathons locally and around the world — often with some of his kids.
For the family, participating in the race each year with friends and family who knew Debbie Ciraldo keeps her memory alive while fighting for a cure.
Licata said it's cathartic to see so many walkers and racers come out.
"I know she’s gone, but she’s still with us in that way with all the people who come together and remember her," Licata said. "Our catchphrase is 'Celebrate Life' — it is a celebration of my mom. It’s a happy thing. We’re not sitting around and crying. We’re happy for what we had. We’re happy for the friends and family to remember her and continue this tribute for her and working toward finding this cure."
Beacon Journal consumer columnist and medical reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty
Akron Race for the Cure details
The 2018 Komen Northeast Ohio Akron Race for the Cure will be held at Canal Park Stadium Oct. 13 in downtown Akron. Registration begins at 6 a.m., with a Survivor Ceremony at 8 a.m., a Kids Dash at 8:45 a.m. and the 1 mile/5K walk or run starting at 9:15 a.m. Participants can register online at www.akronraceforthecure.com and also the day of the event.