By Melissa Quinn
The T-shirt swallowed Brynne Ware-Colantuoni.
As the 4-year-old girl walked hand-in-hand with her mother at Relay for Life, fellow participants kept saying how cute she was wearing her mom’s T-shirt. But it was hers, and though the top was a size small, it engulfed her tiny body.
More than a few people thought it was sweet — such a little girl marching around the track to raise cancer awareness. But Ware-Colantuoni wasn’t walking as a participant; she was walking as a survivor.
Now, 10-and-a-half years later, the same girl prepares to walk again, this time in her hometown of Alexandria — walking for herself, walking for her father and walking for fellow cancer survivors.
LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE
Friday the 13th. That’s the day Ware-Colantuoni was diagnosed with cancer.
She was just 3 years old in February 1998 when doctors identified a brain tumor. The golf ball-sized mass rested on her brainstem — which connects the spinal cord with the rest of the organ.
Still a toddler, Ware-Colantuoni had emergency surgery the following day — Valentine’s Day — to remove the tumor. But six months later, the cancer was back.
Ware-Colantuoni would go under the knife again that August. And though the family hoped the cancer was finally gone, it reared its ugly head less than two years later.
The doctors turned to chemotherapy, but Ware-Colantuoni didn’t even make it through a full round before falling into anaphylactic shock. So, she traveled up the East Coast to Boston with her mom and underwent stereotactic radiation.
In June 2000, after a two-year battle, Ware-Colantuoni officially became cancer-free. She was a survivor.
Yet, when Ware-Colantuoni was in sixth grade, cancer struck her family again. Her father, Steve Colantuoni, who oversees student activities at T.C. Williams, was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“It was really scary because we thought we would lose him,” Brynne Ware-Colantuoni said.
But her father put up a fight, and the family gained another survivor.
“It’s all good here,” Brynne Ware-Colantuoni said.
‘WHY DON’T WE HAVE THIS AT T.C.?’
A senior at T.C. Williams — and 13 years cancer-free — Brynne Ware-Colantuoni and her father have been the driving forces behind the city’s inaugural Relay for Life.
The event — held in towns and cities across the country — is an all-night occasion, organized by the American Cancer Society. Relay for Life raises money for research as well as the services that the organization provides cancer patients, including the Hope Lodge, transportation to and from treatments, and support programs for those newly diagnosed.
Participants register as teams, and team members take turns walking throughout the night. The event kicks off around 2 p.m. and features live music from community members as well as fun activities.
“It’s literally a life-changing event,” said Michelle Daichman, Relay for Life event development manager for the South Atlantic Division. “It’s a community coming together and fighting back against cancer and showing a united front.”
After Brynne Ware-Colantuoni’s first relay 15 years ago, she took a brief hiatus from walking. Then, last year, she and T.C.’s National Honor Society participated in the Relay for Life in Fairfax.
It was there that the idea to start an Alexandria City relay was born.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we have this at T.C.?’” Brynne Ware-Colantuoni said. “It’s totally possible to do this in Alexandria.”
So, she and her father began planning. Steve Colantuoni signed on as the event’s chair, with his daughter taking the role of student liaison.
Working with Daichman, Alexandria’s relay committee set a fundraising goal of $50,000. With less than two weeks until the relay — which takes place this weekend — the group had raised more than half.
“It’s been great working with the city,” Daichman said. “They’ve really opened their arms up.”
And the relay marks the first time that the city will host an overnight event. With Brynne Ware-Colantuoni leading the charge, a bevy of T.C. students have registered teams, including the National Honor Society and Key Club.
Even Alexandria’s leaders are getting involved, including Mayor Bill Euille and Superintendent Morton Sherman.
“Cancer affects everyone,” Brynne Ware-Colantuoni said. “It doesn’t discriminate by gender or race or social class or financial stability — it doesn’t discriminate. It’s so important because everyone is affected. There has to be some way of stopping the disease, and we hope we’ll be able to.”
For Brynne Ware-Colantuoni, the city’s Relay for Life represents more than just an event, or “one giant sleepover,” as she calls it — it’s a celebration of life and those who fought tooth and nail to win their war against cancer.
“I think survivorship deserves to be celebrated,” she said.
And it’s the survivors who Brynne Ware-Colantuoni walks for, including that 3-year-old girl swimming in her T-shirt.
“I walk for my dad because he’s a survivor,” she said. “And I walk for myself because I’m a survivor.”