Spotlight Newsletter | Debra Boardman

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Because of you, Debra crossed the finish line

In September 2015, during the Closer to Free Ride, Debra was fighting cancer at Smilow Cancer Hospital. This past September—just a year later—she rode for Closer to Free and crossed the finish line with her family by her side.

IN MARCH 2015, Debra Boardman checked into Smilow Cancer Hospital. It was her daughter’s 12th birthday. Just two days earlier, she had received a terrifying diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia—a potentially fatal blood cancer.

“You always think, it couldn’t happen to me. But when you actually hear that word—cancer—it just feels as if your whole world is crashing down,” she remembers. “We just cried and cried.”

Her first treatment was a powerful course of chemotherapy. The drugs knocked out her immune system completely—so she had to stay in the hospital for 28 days to prevent life-threatening infections. That was just the first of a painful series of treatments, tests, and procedures that lasted many months. There was follow-up chemo that made her dangerously sick, landing her in intensive care. There were endless, anxious days waiting for test results. Most frightening of all, Debra had to have a risky stem cell transplant.

And there were long periods of loneliness in the hospital, with Debra desperately missing her daughters, Emma and Molly, and her husband, Michael.

Fortunately, the compassionate care she received at Smilow, thanks to generous donors like you, made it just a little easier to bear. “Everyone there—the doctors, nurses, cleaning crew, aides— was incredible,” says Debra.

“I am grateful for all of them, every day of my life. It’s very tough to get ripped out of your whole life, away from family and into the hospital. They became like a second family.”

From hospital bed to fearless fundraiser

Early this past summer, her cancer in remission, Debra was driving to the clinic for a checkup. She looked up and saw a billboard for the Closer to Free fundraiser bike ride.

“I wanted to do it. I threw the idea out to my family, and they said, ‘Yes! We can do this!’”Debra, Michael, and the girls put together a team and signed up for the 10-mile ride. Emma, age 13, would ride the entire course herself. Molly, age 9, pedaled behind her dad in a bike trailer. Good friends joined the team. And together, they raised over $9,000 for cancer research and care.

“It meant the world to me,” says Debra. “A year ago, I was not in any condition to ride. Here I was, a year later, having built up the strength and stamina I needed to complete the ride. It felt like such a personal victory!” But perhaps even more important was the sense of purpose she felt riding for all the other people who have been touched by cancer.

“I had one particular friend who didn’t make it—I rode for him,” she says. I rode for people who helped me, people who’d been through what I went through and answered all my questions. I rode for the wonderful doctors, nurses, and staff at Smilow. And I rode for the people who are still there now, fighting for their lives.”

Last August, Debra celebrated the first anniversary of her transplant. “To say you hit the one-year mark is incredible,” she says. “And I absolutely plan to ride again next year!”