More Than Aware is a Shanghai-born support group that has been empowering women to be proactive in the prevention and recovery of breast cancer since 2011. Each spring, the group’s annual Family Fun Run sees thousands of people participating in a race that takes place in Century Park, where all funds and proceeds will go towards the Shanghai Cancer Recovery Club. Ahead of the big day on May 11, MTA founder Suzanne Calton and longtime volunteers Tami Dyer and Mika Fenton-James share their own stories as well as their favorite memories from past runs.
Thinking back on the beginnings of More Than Aware, in what ways has the organization evolved the most?
Suzanne Calton: Each year, we are organically broadening our global reach. It’s been slow and steady, starting with volunteers who have repatriated. They take part in our Global Fun Run from abroad. We ship them their t-shirt and they participate at their chosen place, in their chosen distance and pace.
The best part about the More Than Aware Family Fun Run is reading all of the personal wellness goals people write on the back of their shirt. There is this special energy when you read the hand-written goals of 3,000 people while running together. This was something we did the very first year of the run, and will remain a constant throughout our growth.
Some returning participants like to show off t-shirts from previous years, and share the progress on their annual goal on each shirt. We know of two competitive runners who started their love for running at their first MTA Fun Run, and come back stronger each year. This year’s event will have 250 thrivers, and many of them will write the same goal “be happy and healthy” on their shirt… a message of self-encouragement and an example to the rest of us to be proactive in our wellness.
Image by Tetyana Chebotar, courtesy of More Than Aware
Can Mika and Tami each share why you decided to volunteer with MTA, and what roles do you play within the organization?
Mika Fenton-James: I joined MTA in 2013, after I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was recovering from chemotherapy. At that time, I was not only physically weak but was also at a low-point mentally from the illness. I had to travel back and forth to (my home country) Japan for the operation and chemotherapy, and didn’t have close friends in Shanghai at the time. It was very hard to go through everything all on my own. That was when I came across More Than Aware, and Suzanne’s message of ‘sisterhood support’ – one of the three main pillars of MTA – resonated with me. I am who I am now because of the love and support I received from the sisters at MTA.
Initially, I volunteered in small roles like sending thank you letters to sponsors, setting up auctions, and checking guests in at the luncheon. I took over the registration lead role for both our events (Family Fun Run and Luncheon) when the previous volunteer for registration repatriated. After five years, I have retired from the frontline and now remain as a supportive sister and advisor.
Tami Dyer: I joined MTA because of Suzanne Calton, the founder of MTA and my very close friend. Her inspiring story of founding More Than Aware and the mission of the group just resonated with me. I have been involved for more than seven years, and previously served as the Beneficiary Chair as MTA’s liaison with the Shanghai Cancer Recovery Club from 2012-2017. My role was to organize the participation of cancer thrivers (the preferred term the group uses to describe cancer survivors) in the Thriver parade, performances, speeches and gathering for the May Fun Run, October MTA charity luncheon, etc. It is thrilling to see the enthusiasm and spirit of the thrivers at our events because it helps our volunteers and guests see firsthand what they are supporting. More recently, I have served as a mentor to new volunteers and to take care of whatever is needed to ensure events run smoothly throughout the year.
Of all the MTA Family Fun Runs that you’ve participated in, what were some of most memorable anecdotes that you can share with us?
TD: One of the most memorable Family Fun Runs was in 2014, when the Vice President of the Shanghai Cancer Recovery Club, Zhou Pei, joined for the last time. Ms. Zhou was a cancer survivor and one of the first members of the SCRC. She was a beautiful person who had dedicated her time, energy, talent and love to helping survivors. She had a special connection and deep compassion toward them because she had known the pain, darkness, and fear that they felt facing cancer. After 24 years in remission, her cancer came back in 2013 and spread to her bones. Ms. Zhou was determined to recover well enough to join the 2014 run, and she did. She came in her wheelchair in the rain. Volunteers held an umbrella over her head and pushed her wheelchair into the amphitheater. Thousands of participants cheered for her presence. Unfortunately, she did not make it to our next Fun Run. At the end, she chose to be dressed in her beloved More Than Aware pink and green colors.
"Everyone has her own unique story. They range from a young woman who was told after radiation to give up on hopes for children but went on to have two beautiful healthy babies, to a woman who was diagnosed just after her 70th birthday... and is now thriving beautifully in her home country"
Can you tell us more about the MTA Thrivers Club and briefly share one of the most memorable thriver stories that you’ve encountered?
MF: The MTA Thrivers Club was originally set up by Suzanne to provide what many cancer thrivers need: support from fellow thrivers who truly understand one another’s pain in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Through our groupchats, we actively give each other moral support and share resources and knowledge for newly diagnosed members. For a thriver, it is one small step at a time to recover, and slowly through this sisterhood support, they do and eventually begin to thrive.
My job is to facilitate so the group continues to go on, by keeping the chats active, following up on members’ conditions, and plan events where members can meet and interact. In order to keep the morale of the members up, it is crucial that the group is active. We are constantly receiving new members. While it’s sad that yet another person has been diagnosed, we’re also glad that we are able to provide the support they need.
The encouraging part of this growing group is that although we say goodbye to a few members every year as they move to a different country, many not only remain in the group but also continue to participate actively within our group discussions to give support. We now have overseas members in North and South America and Europe.
Everyone has her own unique story. They range from a young woman who was told after radiation to give up on hopes for children but went on to have two beautiful healthy babies, to a woman who was diagnosed just after her 70th birthday, endured surgery and a year-long chemotherapy treatment surrounded by children and grandchildren, and is now thriving beautifully in her home country. To me, each person’s story is as important and valuable as anyone else’s. This is why I keep going.
Can you tell us about the beneficiary, Shanghai Cancer Recovery Club? How does the MTA Family Fun Run benefit them?
TD: The SCRC was founded in 1989 by a cancer survivor. Their guiding principal is to help cancer survivors feel empowered in a difficult situation by eating healthily, exercising regularly, and building a positive attitude through mutual support and social activities. They have more than 5,000 breast cancer recovered thrivers. The funds raised from the Fun Run are used by the SCRC for a variety of classes and health expert lectures throughout the year for breast cancer thrivers. The donations also fund other activities, including an annual social outing for more than 1,000 breast cancer thrivers.
SC: MTA’s partnership with SCRC is not a donation or beneficiary relationship; we are a true partnership and co-facilitate portions of the events for the public. SCRC staff manages the MTA BANK account, and 100 percent of all funds (not just proceeds) go back to our partner. Both organizations are run entirely by unpaid volunteers.
Click here to register for the 2019 More Than Aware Family Fun Run on May 11. Cover Image by Tetyana Chebotar, courtesy of More Than Aware.