LEWISTON, Maine — In fall 2021, Tina Merritt was feeling healthier than ever. She was well on her way to meeting a goal she had set back in 2019: hiking all of New Hampshire's mountains that are 4,000 feet and taller.
Merritt was also exercising and running to take care of her heart since heart disease runs in her family. Then, she received a diagnosis on Oct. 13, 2021, that changed her life: stage 1B breast cancer.
"Cancer doesn’t even run in my family," Merritt said.
She began a journey that she said was incredibly emotional. She got a double mastectomy in December and started taking a drug she has to take for five years in place of chemotherapy or radiation. She said sometimes she would feel angry. Other times, she would feel guilty that her diagnosis wasn't as bad as others.
"There are days where I was feeling great. I was like, 'Screw this. I’m going to beat cancer. Just get it out. Do the surgery, and get it out,'" Merritt said. "Then, there’s days where I was really heavy — like, 'Why me? Why is this happening? What did I do?'"
Merritt started going to the Dempsey Center for counseling and massages, which she said really helped her begin to heal. That's why, in a couple of weeks, Merritt will be running a 10K in the 2022 Dempsey Challenge, which raises money to allow the center to continue to provide free services to cancer patients and their loved ones.
She's taken part in the challenge before, but this is the first time she is doing so as a cancer survivor.
"Any amount that I can give back just brings me so much joy because I know how the services helped me, and I want to be able to get back to give that to someone else," Merritt said, later adding, "[I'm] going to be crossing the finish line and being like, 'Cancer didn’t get you. It didn’t get you today.'"
Karen Page is the outreach lead for the Dempsey Center. She said people come from around the state and the country to take part in the Dempsey Challenge, making it "one of the best weekends of the year."
"Year after year, our community continues to show up and continues to raise more money than the year before," Page said.
Page said the challenge this year will look the most normal since the pandemic began, making it perhaps even "a little bit sweeter." On Friday, there will be a celebration to kick off the weekend. The 10K run and walk will take place on Saturday, and the cycling event on Sunday.
"Even people who have passed away — we see their friends and family come back year after year. It’s just such an incredible weekend of togetherness," Page said.
"This will be the first time that I’ve actually been at the Dempsey Challenge. I’m actually going to do one of the shorter walks because I want to get a good picture of what actually happens on that day," Liz Como, an oncology massage therapist at the Dempsey Center, said.
Como took on this role (her self-described "dream job") in January. The therapist said she recognizes how important holistic care is to cancer patients. That's what the center provides.
"It’s such a disrupting experience — to one, be diagnosed with cancer; and to two, go through whatever treatments you end up needing for cancer," Como said, later adding, "It's not just about the cancer itself. It’s about all the ways that cancer is affecting your life."
The 2022 Dempsey Challenge takes place on Sept. 24-25 in Lewiston. Those interested can learn more here.