When Rebecca Imperiali stepped out to run a 3.1-mile course as part of the 2021 Virtual Lahey Cancer Institute 5K Walk & Run, that 5K had special meaning for her. She ran in this annual event for her eighth consecutive year not “just” as a participant, but as many things. As a veteran marathon runner. As a Ribbons of Hope team member. As a longtime Beverly Hospital staff member and current vice president of philanthropy for Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals.
And in 2021, Rebecca ran as a cancer survivor.
Running for health
A former high school track athlete, Rebecca resumed running after giving birth to her youngest daughter and has only increased her commitment since then. She discovered her competitive streak when she started sprint-distance triathlons and then switched to long-distance running. “Running is my own form of mental health and self-support,” Rebecca explained, describing how it has been a large part of her resilience since being diagnosed with follicular lymphoma in late 2019. “It has kept routine, a modicum of control, and a strong dose of perspective in my life—especially when I was diagnosed and getting treated during the first pandemic surge, and later as a cancer survivor.”
Rebecca’s calm demeanor belied her deep determination and steely management of that diagnosis and treatment at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and Lahey Medical Center, Peabody. Abdominal pain, later determined to be unrelated to her cancer, led her to see a Lahey gastroenterologist. A CT scan revealed a potential lymphoma, which was eventually confirmed as a slow-growing follicular lymphoma that had progressed to the point of requiring treatment.
Being a cancer patient
“My experience with my oncologist was really reassuring,” she said. “There was no ego involved. He told me that he wanted me to get a second opinion, and he wanted me to feel assured that I was completely comfortable with the treatment plan. Knowing that our oncologists use the most advanced protocols for each specific cancer—and that they consult with specialists within as well as outside the hospital system to be sure each patient’s treatment plan is the best that it can be—was really important. It’s all about what is best for the patient.”
Rebecca was fortunate to undergo her first chemo-immunotherapy combination treatment in January 2020 before the pandemic hit, as her husband, Ron, could be with her on that very difficult day. When they arrived for her second of 18 total treatments though, the world had shifted. Ron was stopped at the door, and Rebecca had to walk into the clinic alone. “My heart went out to people who started treatment during the pandemic. I knew what to expect, but it was just really challenging,” she said. “My nurse, Sue B., was my support. She was amazing, and the clinic in Peabody is such a beautiful, calm environment. I was thrilled not to have to travel to Boston, and to be able to connect with Sue, who lives in Rockport and is a member of my community.”
With a commitment to Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals and her colleagues facing the pandemic on the front lines, Rebecca worked throughout her cancer treatment, taking breaks during her treatment weeks. By the 2021 Lahey Cancer Institute 5K, she had completed half of her two-year maintenance course of immunotherapy, without expectation of any relapse. “The treatment protocols have advanced so much! If I had this diagnosis 20 years ago, my only option would have been chemotherapy—and to return every five years for more,” she said.
Continuing a personal challenge
For Rebecca, emerging from her cancer treatment—and receiving the COVID-19 vaccine—meant relief that loved ones no longer viewed her as fragile, and getting back to the normalcy of hugging her family. She was excited to run the Lahey Cancer Institute 5K in July 2021, and to resume a marathon challenge that she and Ron set for themselves when they became empty-nesters. Together, they have run marathons on five of the world’s seven continents! Having accomplished this feat in Africa, Antarctica, Europe, and North and South America, they look forward to completing this challenge together.
Ribbons of Hope
Rebecca was thrilled to join her colleagues and friends on the Ribbons of Hope team again as they participated in the 2021 Lahey Cancer Institute 5K Walk & Run. That year, she did so for the first time as one of the many patients and survivors the event supports, and with personal gratitude for the compassion and expert care of the Lahey Cancer Institute’s nurses and oncologists. “I am so glad we have this event,” she said. “We raise money to help fund cancer care and ‘extras’ for patients, like massages, when you’re going through treatment. And the event helps people understand that we have great oncologists and cancer centers close to home. Everyone should know we have top-notch care right here in our own backyard.”