After 16-year-old Jeremy Dranikoff’s mom passed away two years ago, he thought about ways he could remember and honor her. Inspiration came from one of his two younger sisters, Rebecca, last December.
A year prior, they had participated in the New York City Undy RunWalk, a 5K series organized by the Colorectal Cancer Alliance that raises awareness and support for our programs. Rebecca thought they could do something similar in memory of their mom.
“She wasn’t quite sure how to attack the idea because she’s younger than me, but she knew that I had the drive to get it done,” Jeremy says.
With the help of a few adults, including friends of their mom and their father, Lee, the siblings—Jeremy, Rebecca, and Abby—sprung into action to make the race happen.
Jeremy recorded a Facebook video, in which he tells supporters that 50,000 people die every year from colorectal cancer, despite being one of the most preventable diseases. Ninety percent of cases are treatable when caught early.
Led by Jeremy, the trio hung posters at the high school and businesses in downtown Millburn, New Jersey. They installed lawn signs, posted to social media, and talked to their classes. Jeremy even coordinated with his school’s athletic director and principal. Around race day, teachers let him make up homework that he didn’t have time to complete.
“It was a full-blown effort because we had only six weeks to get as many people there as possible,” Jeremy says.
Jeremy even spoke at a board of education meeting and was interviewed by Tap Into Short Hills, the local newspaper.
His dad, Lee—who is an Alliance board member—helped with the finances and marketing.
“He had the spreadsheet, looking at how much different things would cost because, quite frankly, I don’t know how to use excel that well,” Jeremy says. “I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without him.”
When South Mountain Dog Park filled with hundreds of people in memory of Jeremy’s mom, Joanna, he couldn’t believe it.
“She affected so many people—so many people I didn’t even know she affected or knew,” Jeremy says. “And I only know this because of the people who showed up to the race.”
Even with temperatures in the mid-30’s, and after a severe storm had knocked down trees and cut power around town, 400 participants came to walk or run in the March Fourth 5K. They had so many people, they ran out of giveaway beanie hats, emblazoned with the March Fourth 5K logo.
“Seeing this many people in one location around something this important to me, that was amazing,” Jeremy says. “I had a friend come from out of state, my entire baseball program showed up. Anybody you could think of that I know made their best effort to come, and it was incredible.”
In all, the race raised about $30,000, an incredible feat for first-time event planners. Even Saint Barnabas Hospital exhibited at the event, sending a nurse who handed out resources and signed up attendees to receive colorectal cancer screenings.
“If my mom was screened at 40, who knows what would’ve happened?” Jeremy says. “If it’s in our power to save these people, then we should do it.”
Jeremy says the goal of the race wasn’t to find a cure. Instead, he says, the team wanted to help ensure other people don’t suffer from colorectal cancer.
“We wanted to make it so no one else has to lose a parent to this at such a young age,” he says. “Colon cancer is not something people typically die from as young as my mom did.”
Unfortunately, Joanna was part of a startling trend affecting adults under age 50. Since 1994, cases of young-onset colorectal cancer have increased by 51%, according to the National Cancer Institute. Researchers aren’t sure why.
Jeremy also says having so many young people involved is important, too. They can deliver a message to their parents in a way others can’t.
“It’s something of a shock if your kid, who is my age or even younger, comes up to their parents and says, ‘Mom or dad, I want you to get screened for colorectal cancer,’” Jeremy says. “I think a parent would be taken aback by that a little bit, and it would resonate in their mind and maybe they would take an action and get screened.”
The family is planning to hold another race. No word yet on whether teachers will excuse late homework next year, too—but we think they will.
In March, we observe National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month. Join us as we build our nation of passionate allies, fiercely determined to end this disease within our lifetime.