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She runs to save lives of others

Marblehead woman has lost three siblings

Marblehead’s Jennifer Sheridan, who’s lost three siblings to cancer, is running to fight the disease. Marblehead’s Jennifer Sheridan, who’s lost three siblings to cancer, is running to fight the disease. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Justin A. Rice
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2012
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Running her first Boston Marathon in 2009, Jennifer Sheridan pulled over to the side of the road near the halfway point of the race in Wellesley.

The Marblehead resident wasn’t too tired to continue.

She was running in memory of her sister, Molly Firth-Hooper, who died of cancer in February 2008 when she was 36, and in honor of her brother, John R. Firth Jr., who had an almost identical brain tumor to the one that killed their sister. With her siblings’ names printed on her shirt, Sheridan stopped to kiss and hug friends and family before seeking out her brother, perched in a folding chair because he was too weak to stand.

As she embraced him, Sheridan knew she would likely be running in his memory the following year. He died 26 days after the race at age 32.

“It was very emotional, [but it was] also very uplifting to see them,’’ said Sheridan, who finished the race in 3 hours 53 minutes. “My brother’s condition started to deteriorate quite a bit; at that point he was living with us. He moved in back in January, and a lot of my time was spent as his caregiver, taking him to appointments, filling prescriptions, and helping make decisions.

Wellesley’s “entering the harder part of the marathon, I felt that gave me a push to get through the rest of it.’’

Sheridan, 40, has lost three of her four siblings to cancer within the past four years and will run her fourth Boston Marathon Monday as part of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team. Another sister, Mary Firth, 35, succumbed to melanoma last year.

“It is important to give back and to find hope through doing something that you feel strongly about,’’ Sheridan said, “and even though ultimately my sisters and brother did not survive cancer, I believe in what the [Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge] mission is and am really proud to be a part of this group.’’

About a month or two after Firth-Hooper’s death in 2008, Sheridan dusted off her running shoes and hit the Marblehead Rail Trail for a 2- or 3-mile loop. The mother of three young children, who was also caring for her brother at the time, had run the Chicago Marathon in 4:16 the year she turned 30. But training was never a constant, and eventually gave way to life’s urgencies.

In the spring of 2008, however, Sheridan didn’t know how else to cope and clear her head but to run.

“Distance-wise it was a gradual thing, commitment-wise, the amount I did it, I was like ‘I’m just going to run,’ ’’ Sheridan said. “But after doing it the first time I felt better, it was a stress release, a really therapeutic time; time on my own to process things, not talk to anybody.

“I ran alone for the first couple years.’’

Sheridan’s husband, Andrew, said his wife was a noticeably different person after she started running.

“The whole house, you obviously don’t see smiling and happy faces, the whole attitude of the house was tense almost all the time,’’ Andrew said. “When these events are going on and you always have a birthday and anniversary of somebody who passed away, the feel of the house is very tense. It definitely drops when she’s running, when she’s doing things she loves, which is running and raising money for awareness.

“It’s an intangible pleasantness in a situation that is inherently awful.’’

But at the time, he could not have imagined her hobby would turn her into a pillar for families of other cancer victims and prompt her to pen a popular blog on running and cancer. “Be good, be strong’’ (begoodbestrong.blogspot.com) is a salutation the family adopted during its darkest hours.

This year, Sheridan has been named to Mass General Hospital Cancer Center’s “the one hundred,’’ which celebrates those who have contributed to the cancer community in large and small ways.

Andrew Sheridan said he’s most proud of the fact that his wife never buckled under the stress her siblings’ deaths created. “The easy thing to do - I probably tend toward that - is to sleep and hide away and disappear, and that has not been her attitude,’’ he said. “I’m proud of her for that. She’s someone a lot of people look up to, especially myself.’’

Sheridan had to deal with several setbacks to her siblings that would’ve overwhelmed many people.

After being in remission for about five years, her brother saw his cancer return while Sheridan was raising $14,000 for Dana-Farber in their sister Molly’s memory to run the 2009 marathon. In 2010, Sheridan ran the Boston Marathon in 4:10 and raised $20,000, even as her sister Mary suffered a reoccurrence of her cancer and her health started to deteriorate. That fall, Mary, who lived in Chattanooga, Tenn., seemed to be responding to experimental treatment, but by the winter her tumors were not only growing but multiplying.

She died two months before last year’s Boston Marathon.

Despite running in the memory of three siblings on short training last spring, Sheridan ran a personal best time of 3:48. Her time was so good that it qualified her to run this year’s race without a charity bib, which she decided to decline so she could run for the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team again this year.

“I was surprised how great I felt last year,’’ Sheridan said of the 2011 marathon. “My training was off because I was out of town for periods at a time for Mary’s funeral and all kinds of stuff. I didn’t know how things were going to be.’’

Sheridan said her sister Mary’s death and the lack of training unshackled her mind, allowing her to stop thinking about strategy and just to run. “I think that’s part of it,’’ she said. “I knew not to push myself and just run a pace I was comfortable with without thinking I should go faster or I should be going slower. I didn’t run with a GPS, I just ran with a watch on and just kept an eye on things.

“I wasn’t obsessed with time. I took it easy and wanted to soak it up. . . . You never know when you are going to have a good one or a bad one; I just felt that it had been incredibly emotional and I didn’t even stop to talk to my family.

“I felt I would not be able to start again if I did.’’

This year, Sheridan’s goal is to run in 3:45, but she said that would require ideal conditions.

“My plan is to get through a big chunk at a comfortable pace, not overthink it,’’ she said. “The bigger reason I’m out there isn’t for me to run fast. It’s to get it done while giving back to Dana-Farber.’’

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.

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