Momma Bears Band Together: Building a Community of Strength and Hope

Megan DePalma with her mother Lisa Dychala, and son Cayden DePalma
Megan DePalma with her mother Lisa Dychala, and son Cayden DePalma

When Megan Dychala was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, she called the only person who could put her at ease: her mom.

Megan's mom Lisa recalls getting that call, saying "I didn't know how, or what Sarcoma was, but I had hope—even if I had no idea where to start to help my daughter through this."

Enter Barb Herzlich.

Megan knew Barb's son Mark through mutual friends and they re-connected when he and Megan's now-husband Dan were teammates on the New York Giants. Mark was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma in 2009 when he was just 21 years old. Determined to not let cancer end his football career Mark beat his sarcoma and is now 9 years cancer free. Knowing Mark was a survivor, Megan reached out to him for guidance.

Barb played such an important role in Mark's treatment and recovery, "Having my mom by my side through my journey was comforting and allowed me to be vulnerable. I had always felt like I needed to handle everything myself and not show emotional or physical weakness. Having my mom by my side allowed me to revert back to a time as a child when not only was it perceived as okay to 'let mom handle it'—it was welcomed. I love my mother for reasons that have nothing to do with cancer, but she provided me something during that specific time that no one else except God could: peace," Mark shares.

Mark knew exactly what to do—get Megan to Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) and have their mom's connect for an extra layer of support. Barb immediately called Lisa and though they had had never met before, the common thread of having children with the same cancer instantly, and strongly, bonded them to one another.

"Being a mom myself now, I can't begin to imagine the emotions my mom felt when her child was diagnosed with cancer. From the initial diagnosis, discussions, treatment, and recovery she was there every step of the way. My rock, my shoulder to cry on, my advocate, I truly couldn’t have done it without her." — Megan DePalma

"I know what it's like to be a mom going through this. There's nothing quite like it. I also instantly knew I could be Lisa's 'Battle Buddy,'" Barb helped Lisa navigate her way through the emotional first doctors' appointments, the uncertainty, and most importantly reassured her that Kristy L. Weber, MD, and her team at the ACC would provide Megan the best care.

"We have an amazing sarcoma team at Penn Medicine that includes a multidisciplinary group of physicians, nurses, and staff that look at every case individually to determine what options there are for patients. And most importantly, it's always a discussion with the patient," shares Dr. Weber.

Together with Stephen J. Kovach III, MD, Dr. Weber removed the back of Megan's knee and rebuilt her leg through vascular, skin, and muscle grafts in a 14-hour surgery. Less than six weeks later Megan was up and on her own two feet. Just a few months after that, she was doing box jumps at the gym.

Mark Herzlich with his mother, Barb Herzlich, and son Boston Herzlich
Mark Herzlich with his mother, Barb Herzlich, and son Boston Herzlich

Fortunately, like Mark, Megan was able to beat her sarcoma and is now 5 years cancer free. And Lisa and Barb hit it off so well, they stayed in touch even after Megan's recovery.

"We just connected on so many levels, as moms and as people," explains Barb.

Wanting to give back and help others on their journey with sarcoma, Barb and Lisa knew they could use their shared experience as a catalyst for action and hope. So when Dr. Weber invited them, along with other survivors and families, to learn more about supporting Penn's research efforts, they jumped at the opportunity.

"We kept raising our hands," Barb jokes, "and, that's how the Steps to Cure Sarcoma event started."

An annual 5K run/1 Mile walk, Steps to Cure Sarcoma raises funds that support collaborative sarcoma research at Penn Medicine's Abramson Cancer Center, Penn Veterinary School, and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Philanthropy is the seed of innovation. Two recipients of Steps to Cure Sarcoma, Drs. Karin Eisinger and Malay Haldar, felt the power of this community's generosity.  They used the funds to explore their early phase research, found promising results, and were able to secure a larger government grant to help take their efforts to the next level. Without funding from the event, this wouldn't have been possible.

What started with 200-300 people raising around $35,000, Steps to Cure Sarcoma is now in its 5th year and brings together more than 1,000 people who raise over $100,000 annually for sarcoma research.

Even with the tremendous success they've seen, Lisa and Barb are just as thrilled as they were when they kicked off the event. And, while the Steps to Cure Sarcoma community continues to grow every year, success to these moms is helping just one person to feel connected and supported.

For Megan, her mom guided her on her journey, "Being a mom myself now, I can't begin to imagine the emotions my mom felt when her child was diagnosed with cancer. From the initial diagnosis, discussions, treatment and recovery she was there every step of the way," shares Megan. "My rock, my shoulder to cry on, my advocate, I truly couldn’t have done it without her. When I look back now on that time in our lives, I know how lucky I am to have had her by my side encouraging me. I count my blessings every day that she was there when I needed her and continues to support me in my journey through motherhood and life after cancer."

Mark and Megan's cancer stories are different in so many ways, but their lives are forever intertwined because of their friendship and special bond between their moms. Barb and Lisa will be celebrating another Mother's Day with their "miracle children," but this year will be even more special— it will be their first as grandmothers.

The two grandmothers are beyond excited, to say the least. And more motivated than ever to keep taking those steps to cure sarcoma—together.

Join them on June 2nd - Cancer Survivorship Day - for Steps to Cure Sarcoma by registering here!

This Mother's Day, honor the special person in your life with a gift to support cancer research and care.

About this Blog

The Penn Medicine Giving blog highlights and promotes philanthropic contributions to Penn Medicine and the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.

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