An injury kept Steven Branfman from riding with his team in this year’s Pan-Mass Challenge, a race he has been doing since 2004. But his experience from the sidelines was perhaps the most emotional since he started riding in remembrance of his son Jared, who died of brain cancer in 2005.
“Not only was I frustrated and sad because I couldn’t ride it,” Branfman said, his voice breaking, “but because I was experiencing the PMC the way Jared experienced it — not being able to walk and not being able to ride.”
Branfman’s team was among 5,234 cyclists from around the country and the world whose participation in the two-day race in August raised $37 million for cancer research and patient care — $2 million more than last year, said Billy Starr, the event’s founder and executive director. Ridership was up 1 percent. The fund-raising total was to be announced Sunday.
“It represents the hope of a huge community of people that have been impacted and really want to move the needle on this deadly disease,” Starr said. “It’s a complicated and multigenerational battle. [The annual donation] is an important gift, and we build upon it.”
In August 2004 and 2005, Jared, who used a wheelchair as he battled malignant tumors in his spine, volunteered as a sideline bicycle mechanic during the race, which raises money for research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund.
The 23-year-old, born into a family of cyclists, planned to ride in the 2006 Pan-Mass Challenge. But he died in September 2005 after tumors spread to his brain, Branfman said.
Jared’s memory is what motivates Branfman, his wife, Ellen, and his 28-year-old son Adam to continue participating in the race every August, along with their 47-member group, Team Kermit, named after Jared’s favorite Muppet character.
With 100 percent of the money raised by riders going to the Jimmy Fund, the race is critical for the expansion of innovative cancer research, said Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., Dana-Farber’s president. Research funding from the National Institutes of Health has been on the decline for the past seven years, making grants harder to come by, he said.
“I’m fond of saying that when they write the history of how cancer got conquered, the PMC riders are going to be on page one,” Benz said. “They are having a real impact because they are supporting a concentration of talented investigators who are making real progress knocking these diseases down. It’s absolutely essential.”
In its ninth year, Team Kermit has raised 1.5 million for the Jimmy Fund’s Jared Branfman Sunflowers for Life Fund for Pediatric Brain and Spinal Cancer Research, said Branfman, 59, of Newton.
Every August, up until the boys graduated from high school, the family would go on cycling-centered vacations. Now, the first weekend in August, when the Pan-Mass Challenge happens, is sacred on the calendar, Branfman said.
“As you enter the milieu of the PMC, you feel you entered into a family of 7,000. There are no strangers,” he said. “We all hope for an e-mail from the PMC that the PMC has been canceled because the cure for cancer has been found. There’s nothing we’d all like better than to not have anything to do that weekend.”