“I don’t think of myself as a hero,” said Amy Hollub, ovarian cancer survivor who—along with the help of her family, close friends, and an advisory board—spearheaded a fundraising event in Miami. “It’s my whole community.”
Indeed, the idea of community plays a big role in Amy’s ovarian cancer experience – from her own family history to those in her synagogue who have been touched by women’s cancers. While the Rock n’ Run event to raise money for ovarian and breast cancer research launched in 2013, Amy was diagnosed in 2009 when her doctor discovered a large tumor during an annual checkup.
“I had not one symptom,” Amy said. “Like, nothing. Other than my jeans were a little tight.” (And really, what woman over the age of 40 has not experienced her jeans getting a little tight?)
It’s not that Amy wasn’t aware of her family history. Her father’s mother and sister both died of ovarian cancer. And every time she went for a checkup, she made her doctors aware of her medical background. But they brushed it off, saying “Oh, don’t worry. It’s on your dad’s side.”
After the discovery of the tumor, she met with a surgeon and the first thing he asked was about her family history. “I said, ‘yes, but it’s on my dad’s side,’” Amy recalled, “and he looked at me like I was a moron. He said, ‘your genes are from both sides.’”
The tumor had to be removed due to its size, and it was when she woke up from surgery with a port in her abdomen that Amy learned she had ovarian cancer. (She also had genetic testing and learned that she was positive for the BRCA gene mutation.)
In the year after her diagnosis and surgeries, Amy went through two courses of chemo and had a prophylactic mastectomy. She also helped her daughter prepare for her Bat Mitzvah. That’s how the Rock n’ Run came into being.
“We were talking about what she could do for her Bat Mitzvah project,” said Amy, referring to a common tradition for young Jewish teens to honor their religious ceremony by engaging in community service. “We wanted to give back to the cancer community.”
Through another synagogue in Miami, Amy got involved with Sharsheret, an organization that supports Jewish women and families facing breast and ovarian cancer. One of the women who started that chapter, who was not sick at that time, ended up getting ovarian-gastro cancer and died rather quickly from it right as Amy finished chemo.
“It was so devastating for our Jewish community,” Amy said. “And then our rabbi – who at the time was a beautiful, young woman in her 30’s – was diagnosed with breast cancer. So our whole community was just very invested.”
The first year, the event drew about 400 people, and has held steady with between 300-500 racers and dancers each year. The race even received the support of the former and current Mayors of the Village of Pinecrest (the neighborhood in Miami where Amy lives and her synagogue, Beth Am, is located).
Entrants can sign up for the dance part of the event (a giant Zumba class in the synagogue’s gym) or the 5k race. Some people even do the race and then join the dance class afterwards. The event typically raises approximately $75,000-$100,000 between entrance fees and sponsorships.
Needless to say, 2020 posed a bit of a challenge. Amy struggled with the idea of asking people for money in a year that has been so difficult for so many. And how they could pull this off virtually?
“But then our rabbi, who also had recovered, called and said, ‘We have to do it this year,’” Amy laughed. “How can I say no to the rabbi?”
So she and her committee brainstormed and decided to promote it as a ‘race at your own pace and dance in your own space’ for the months of September and October, incorporating both ovarian and breast cancer awareness months.
The event was originally planned for October 4th, so on that day, they sent out a link to a pre-filmed Zumba class, and Amy suspects that most people chose that day to actually run. This year, the event raised just over $80,000.
Amy recalls one of the best pieces of advice she received, while going through chemo, from a friend who had dealt with a cancer diagnosis as a child. “She said this is the time when you need to be selfish. I focused my energies on healing and on my family.”
Amy also used visualization to get through the hard days.
“I just really tried to visualize being healthy and I would imagine a little Pac-man eating up my cancer cells.”
Amy had no time to feel sorry for herself; she just focused on staying positive, getting through one day at a time and getting better. Yet, when she finished chemo she didn’t want to celebrate. “The fear of recurrence hanging over your head is worse than chemo,” she said.
But she’s here, 11 years after her initial diagnosis, and feeling incredibly grateful. Grateful for her family, her friends, the advisory board of the Rock n’ Run event. “I wouldn’t be here without all of them,” said Amy.