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Northampton fundraiser for prof nets $3,400 for Dana Farber

The 54-year-old South Hadley resident and professor of exercise science at Westfield State University had been training for the 2014 Boston Marathon as a member of the team raising money for the Dana Farber Institute when she felt some shortness of breath on Dec. 22, she said.

She went to the emergency room and learned that she had stage 4 thymic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer affecting the thymus, a gland in the upper chest that makes white blood cells.

When two of the students she advises heard the news, they organized what they thought would be the best kind of event to show their support.

On Sunday, more than 300 runners and walkers turned out for “T’s Village 5K Run/2 Mile Walk to Conquer Cancer,” a fundraiser for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in honor of Fitts, who participated in the walk. Both the running and walking courses started and ended at Strides Human Performance Institute on Carlon Drive. The event raised about $3,400 for Dana-Farber, according to event organizers.

“The first thought that popped into my mind was, ‘I hope she still gets to run the Boston Marathon,’” said co-organizer Sean Vanzant, a senior movement science major at Westfield State University, of when he learned of Fitts’ diagnosis. As well as Fitts being his adviser, he has been a student in her classes all four years of college, he said.

Vanzant, 22, of Springfield and co-organizer Brittni Peck, 21, of Longmeadow, also a senior movement science major, were required to plan and put on an event as part of an internship at the Strides Human Performance Institute, a fitness center specializing in youth programs.

Their supervisor, Strides owner Len Haggerty, said they knew right away that they wanted their project to honor Fitts, and that they needed little help getting the plan off the ground.

“They just ran with it — the pun intended, “ said Haggerty, of Belchertown, as he walked the course with his 3-year-old daughter, Vivi, on his shoulders. Also with him was his wife, Jennifer Samale, and their other daughter, Izabella, 5.

He said he has known Fitts since he began working with Westfield State students several years ago. “She’s everybody’s biggest cheerleader,” he said. “It’s finally an opportunity for us to cheer and support her.”

Fitts began the walk near the front of the pack, but dropped back to help out at one of the stations where volunteers were handing out water, noted walk participant Lisa Aiken. “Typical Teresa,” said Aiken, of Belchertown, whose children are friends with Fitts’ daughters.

Fitts came with her husband, Jim, and their twin daughters, Mary and Sarah, 12. She said she still hopes to start the marathon on April 21.

“Start — not run” the marathon, she said. “I don’t know how far I’m going to get, but I’m definitely going to start.” At that time, she expects to have finished her fourth round of chemotherapy the week before, she said.

She has been on medical leave from work since her diagnosis, and has so far received three rounds of chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments. To keep up with her marathon training, she has been going to spin classes, but her breathing has improved to the point where she has just started to run again, she said.

Fitts has been a runner for around 40 years. This would be her first time competing in the Boston Marathon. Originally from Belmont, she has lived in South Hadley for 20 years, and also lived in Amherst for around four years. She has been teaching at Westfield State University since 1997.

Having grown up in the Boston area, the marathon has a special importance for her, she added. As a member of the Dana Farber team, she had been raising money in honor of a high school classmate who died of melanoma, she said.

She said she was amazed at how many people from different walks of her life showed up Sunday, such as members of her high school basketball team.

Vanzant described Fitts as someone who goes “above and beyond” as both a teacher and a person.

“Anyone can agree how good of a person she is,” he said, adding that he is glad to do “anything I can do just to give back to her, because she definitely deserves it.”

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