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Arlington cancer survivor rides for cure, celebrates 5 years of being cancer free

Posted by Brock Parker  July 9, 2010 09:47 AM

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Arlington resident Jen Cunningham Butler (right) with her husband Dan Butler (left) and nephew Todd Eaves (center) at the start of the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge in Wellesley in 2009.

In more than a decade of participating in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, Arlington resident Jen Cunningham Butler has ridden her bicycle for everyone from cancer patients, to doctors, to her mom.

And each year, at the end of the 190-mile ride that raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Butler said she would stop to watch cancer survivors who participated in the Challenge pose for what they called the “living proof photo.”

“I always looked at the people who were survivors and thought ‘man they are tough; that is so cool; That is why we are doing this,’” said Butler.

Then in 2005, Butler was diagnosed with breast cancer, had the tumor removed, and underwent radiation treatment.

Six weeks later, she was back on her bike for a 112-mile ride in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, and when the ride was complete, there was another living proof photo. Only Butler was on the other side of the camera, standing next to fellow survivors and feeling shaken up at every thing she’d just been through.

“I’m six weeks out of radiation,” Butler recalled, “and I said to the person next to me, how far out are you, and she said two years, and someone else said five years, and all around me I started hearing 15 years, 30 years, 12 years, whatever it was, and I said thank you guys, I’m good now, because you have that support from the cancer community—of the other people.”

Five years later, and Butler, now 47, is preparing to be one of more than 5,000 people riding in Pan Massachusetts Challenge on Aug. 7-8. When she does, she’ll also cross out a 5 on the back of her bicycle jersey to signify five years of being cancer free.

For Butler, riding in the Challenge is part of a family tradition of raising money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Her mother, Sheila Driscoll Cunningham founded the Friends of Dana-Farber in 1976 and was a member of the Patient Advisory Council before dying of breast cancer in 2003. Butler’s father Ingersoll "Sandy" Cunningham has been volunteering for Dana-Farber for more than 10 years and two years ago Butler started the Pan Massachusetts Challenge for kids at the Brookwood School in Manchester where she works.

“There is so much cancer that touches adults and touches kids, and I wanted the kids to have the opportunity to be able to do something about it,” Butler said.

This year will be Butler’s 14th Challenge and she’s hoping to raise about $6,500 for Dana-Farber.

But the real reason she’s riding is to return the favor to the doctors that saved her life, and to benefit cancer patients going through what she’s already experienced.

“I’m doing this for you guys to pay it forward because I can do it,” Butler said. “I’m still here.”

For more information about this year’s Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, visit the ride’s website at

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