Kelley M. Ward
Kelley M. Ward

Milele (Family Forever in Swahili)
Thursday, March 02
As I sit here in the Amsterdam airport awaiting the final leg of my slow return to the United States, my trusty altimeter app reads -3 feet in altitude. But my head (and my heart) still seem to be in the clouds. How can one put a year into a few reflective paragraphs - let alone all that we triumphed over in the last three weeks? My swirling brain can only think of one thing: this team. Nothing would've been possible without this team.
 
I've been on sports teams, I work within a team of very talented, beautifully passionate women at the MMRF and I've managed many other endurance events teams throughout my three years at the MMRF, but this was something truly special. I knew from the get-go that we had quite the group for the 2017 Mt. Kilimanjaro climb but never could I imagine what a family unit we would become and just how big this family is. 
 
Here are the numbers to help with the math that makes up this family unit:
 
16 - The number of team members for the 2017 Mt. Kilimanjaro hike. In the week or so leading up to the trip we had two team members who were unable to continue with us - Mark Herkert, whom I wrote about previously, needed to stay stateside to improve his immune health; and Daryl Olson, who suffered AFib problems once arriving in Amsterdam (the half-way point for us on our way to Africa) and made the crucial decision to return home safely. Granted our sadness, we had to move forward as a group of 14, we never let Mark or Daryl leave from our hearts and our minds as we kept our eye on the goal: the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. They served as additional fuel to our motivational fire.
 
18 - This is the team (14 MMRF participants) plus Erik Jones, our guide and my co-team leader from Embark, Marty Murphy from Cure Media, and John Waller and Ben Canales, the insanely talented documentarians from Uncage the Soul who captured entire journey all the while hiking to 19,341 feet (again). On the 18th, the core group of 18 people moved forward and took our first steps on Mt. Kilimanjaro at the Lemosho Gate.
 
72 - The number of porters, guides, cooks, camping crew, etc. from Embark that helped our team get up Mt. Kilimanjaro. These men were nothing short of amazing. Carrying up to 50 pounds of gear on their heads plus a pack on their back, all the while leading our every move and making sure we safely made it to the next camp each day or had clean water to drink from for eight days, helped us blow up our sleeping pads when it was too hard to at altitude, or were a literal shoulder to cry on as we slowly climbed to the summit in the pitch-black night, and so so much more. The actual trek and journey across Kilimanjaro would be impossible without these young men and their unwavering support and positive attitudes - always welcoming us with a smile, a joke, or a celebratory song and dance.
 
Over $250,000 - This is how much we raised as a team! To date we are the highest fundraising team from the MM4MM program and we could not be more proud! We actually found out on summit day that we officially surpassed $250,000 on our website and we were thrilled. It is an even more poignant and special moment when we realize that because of the MM4MM partnership and the sponsorship from Takeda Oncology ALL of these funds raised go directly to the MMRF to help accelerate a cure for Multiple Myeloma. This is why we were doing this. This is why the pain and mental struggle each day were worth it.
 
There are hundreds, if not in the thousands, of donors and supporters that helped us all reach so many milestones. From $250,000 raised to being able to call and hear that familiar, incredible, supportive and encouraging voice on the other end of the line at 15,000 feet - our supporters made all of this possible. It's not every day that someone has the opportunity to apply to do something life-changing, let alone accept that opportunity to follow your dreams of achieving it. I know I speak for the entire team when I say that personally it has meant the world to me to have such an amazing support system throughout the last year.  
 
From helping us reach our fundraising goals, to encouraging us when we were feeling the daunting shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro and all her mighty 19,341 feet looming ahead of us, to joining us on long training walks or hikes, or another cumbersome visit to REI to check off a few more items off the gear list, or overseeing the obsessive packing and repacking  process, but most especially, sending the most loving and supportive texts, emails, and phone calls while we've been on the mountain.
 
Our family must be over a thousand people with the immense amount of support we've received in all forms imaginable. It has been the most impactful part to all of us to feel so warmly supported by so many from all corners of the world. 
 
It wasn't until our hour drive from Moshi, Tanzania where we stayed pre and post-climb, to the airport on the 28th that it hit me just how moving of an experience this has been. There were 16 strangers who signed up to hike the world's tallest free standing mountain, travel all the way to Africa to do so, and open up their lives to the public for the greater good to help raise funds and awareness for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. There are thousands of supporters waiting with open arms for us to come home and congratulate us for a multitude of reasons, and there are 72 young Tanzanian men whom we will never forget and be eternally grateful to for their physical support and the never-ending ability to be positive and uplifting. We are incredibly fortunate for this experience.
 
We are a family. Yesterday, today and forever. We are bound by an experience that few will ever have the chance to achieve and that no one could ever recreate. It never mattered the altitude or mileage ahead of us or how much our muscles ached, or how scary a portion of the trek may have been, we always leaned into the situation and leaned on each other. Each curveball made us tighter, stronger and more focused than before. I couldn't ask for a better group of people to work with, connect with, lean on when I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, or support as each of them chased down a dream and made it a reality. It will forever be my honor to have been their team leader.
 
We are Familia Milele. Asante Sana (Thank you very much)!
The Impact of Our Upcoming Climb
Friday, February 10

For a year, we’ve been preparing for our endeavor to Mt. Kilimanjaro, and it’s fast approaching now. As we each put the final touches on our packing, weigh our bags and mentally prepare for the journey ahead, we never for a moment forget WHY we are doing this. This past week we got an all too real reminder…

Team member and patient Mark Herkert had to break the sad news to the team that he is unable to join us in Africa for the climb. Mark’s myeloma had stopped responding to his last two treatment regimens but thankfully because of the research done by the MMRF and our partners there was another option available for him. After some long-awaited test results, Mark had finally heard the words he’s been hoping for since his diagnosis 6 ½ years ago – zero M-spike – he is in “remission” for the first time! Although incredibly joyous news, Mark’s immune system has taken a significant blow and that is what has sidelined him for the time being. Travel to a third world country plus 8 grueling days of climbing pose too many health risks at this time which led to this very difficult but smart decision for Mark. The entire team is rallying around our beloved teammate Mark and we look forward to having his support from afar while we carry on in his honor and routing for him in 2018 when he joins the Everest Base Camp team.

Mark’s journey with this disease resembles so many others’ who are battling multiple myeloma and in need of new treatment options. A mere 15 months ago this new therapy he is responding to was not available to patients but due to the disruptive approach of the MMRF and our relentless mission to bring clinical trials and treatments to patients faster, patients like Mark have options. The MMRF has the only end-to-end Precision Medicine Model which brings the right treatment to the right patient at the right time.  These treatments include not only genomic/targeted base therapies but immune therapies as well. Myeloma is very diverse disease and we need data on every signal patient to find the right path and treatment sequence for all.  None of this would be possible without funding.

Together this team has far surpassed the goal set for us a year ago of $160,000 and have currently raised almost $235,000. We all have our eyes set on raising at least $250,000 but none of us want to stop there! Each person on this team is either personally battling this disease or knows and loves someone dearly who is or has lost their battle with myeloma. THIS IS PERSONAL.

We want to eradicate this disease – for our team members whose determination is enough to motivate any of us to keep moving forward on the trail in the pitch-black of summit night, and for our loved ones who have all provided us with an overwhelming amount of emotional and mental support and inspiration. We each have so many supporters who have helped us reach a goal of raising at least $10,000. Together, as climbers and supporters, we have built so much more awareness about myeloma and the life-saving work of the MMRF. We are ready to bring our mission half way around the world to the very top of Africa. We will be carrying  157 names of cancer patients in our hearts and minds as we climb – and on a banner that we will help us keep moving forward towards the summit, inspiring us along the way and picking us up when we’re down on our toughest parts of the journey to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
 
THANK YOU to all of our supporters, family, friends, and the patients that inspire us each and every day. We look forward to proudly taking on Mt. Kilimanjaro in your honor.
 
One Mountain, Twice the Battle
Tuesday, February 07
Cancer shows us that we are all vulnerable. At age 12, I got a rude awakening when I accidentally heard my mother’s oncologist on the answering machine talking about her recent cancer diagnosis. Not only was this not the way my thoughtful mother would’ve wanted her young daughter to find out she had breast cancer, but at age 43, she had to acknowledge her own vulnerability and prepare for the battle ahead of her while caring for three young children.
 
Moms and dads are their children’s superheroes; they never get sick, they don’t need rest, they don’t need help making dinner because they are too tired or don’t feel well enough. Moms do everything for their children, putting them first, without a second thought about it. My mom was such a superhero - Momma still is a superhero!
 
My mother’s battle with cancer began when I was 12 and it came back for more when I was 15. When you’re that young and you see your parent suddenly becoming “human” it tends to resonate with you. I think for each of my siblings, my mother’s triumphant battles against cancer and the way we processed it all manifested itself in different ways. For me, I wanted to do whatever I could to get rid of this terrible disease – cancer. I didn’t (and still don’t) want anyone to have to know what it feels like to be concerned for your parent’s life and wellbeing.
 
At the end of my freshman year in high school, a neighbor of mine asked me to join her Relay For Life team. I had never experienced the event before but quickly became enthralled with it. sophomore year, just after my mom’s second battle with breast cancer. I decided to manage the team that year and proudly raised over $10,000 personally and more than $20,000 as a team. From that experience, everything changed. I realized that I have the ability to do something to help find a cure for cancer, support cancer research and get others involved doing the same. This is when the seed was planted for what is now my career.
 
So as I sit here today thinking about it all, because of the impact my own mother’s battle had on me as a young girl, I am now leading a team of 16 cancer patients and other individuals directly impacted by cancer in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a leader in oncology research. The MMRF is the first organization to build an end-to-end cancer research system to accelerate the entire process of treating an individual with myeloma. Because of the work being done by the MMRF/MMRC, 10 new FDA-approved drug therapies have been brought to market in the past 10 years to help treat patients, which has caused the life expectancy after diagnosis to triple. This is monumental in oncology and to the families we serve every day. This is why I get up and go to work each and every morning and why, in just a few weeks, I will proudly get up and climb Mt. Kilimanjaro alongside six very brave patients and nine other passionate supporters and caregivers.
 
No one should know the fear of a parent being diagnosed with cancer, or worse, the sadness of losing a parent to the disease. I am so proud of my mother’s persistence, her focus on her health,and her willingness to educate herself and her daughters as much as possible about her disease and advocate for genetic testing. But I am even more proud of the motivation that she has provided me in my life to keep helping others make a difference by raising money and awareness for cancer research. I will certainly be carrying her support and love with me while we are on the mountain. This is for you, Momma, and for all the other superheroes out there still fighting cancer every day.
 
From Organizer to Participant: Why I Had to Get Involved
Friday, January 13
In 2016 we started this incredibly special program, and I have had the privilege of being a part of the planning from the get-go. I’ll always remember when a prior participant and patient reached out to us along with a friend to say they had this passionate idea and wanted to do it with the MMRF. I don’t think any of us expected this “idea” to grow into this developed and global program it has become today.

Taking on the role of Team Manager, I was proud to do all I could to learn about this mountain and support the team. Our fearless founder of the MMRF Endurance Events program, Alicia O’Neill, took the plunge and committed to going on the trek on behalf of the MMRF. I never thought about joining the team at that point; to a then 26-year-old, $10,000 was a lot to raise and to be honest the threat of altitude sickness really intimidated me… and still does!

To me, remaining stateside and supporting this mountainous endeavor was the best way I could imagine being a part of getting the Moving Mountains for Multiple Myeloma program off the ground. But this year was different. The concerns about fundraising were still there but I found myself ready to fixate on new challenges. I felt like in all of my years from high school to now, as a professional, that I had always focused on helping others reach their every potential in fundraising, raising awareness and reaching their fitness goals. I owed it to myself and to the MMRF, which has inspired and fulfilled my life so much, to finally “walk-the-walk.” Now more than ever I feel so compelled to be a part of the ground-breaking work the MMRF and the MM4MM program are doing for myeloma awareness and research. For almost three years, I have met and come to care so deeply for the patients and families this disease and cancer in general affect. I want to do all I can to help prolong these people’s lives and help create so much HOPE for those to come.

This team is beyond special. In our nine years as an endurance events program, we’ve never had six patients on one team before. It doesn’t end there though. The amount of heart and passion in each of the individuals on this team is humbling and I couldn’t be more proud to call them my team mates let alone be their team leader. For them and with them I know I can take on anything this mountain throws at us. Just like the MMRF is overcoming the obstacles in cancer research and the difficulty in treating myeloma, together we will overcome Mt. Kilimanjaro.

 
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