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Purdue 'Challenge' is much more than a race

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Two-time cancer survivor LuAnn Blough, mother of Purdue starting quarterback David Blough, is one of the top fundraisers for Saturday's Challenge 5K.

Only weeks after celebrating turning 40 on New Year’s Eve, LuAnn Blough noticed a sore on her tongue.

She waited a couple weeks, hoping it’d go away. It didn’t. So she scheduled a trip to the dentist. Three hours later, she was meeting with an oral surgeon.

About a month later, she had a nine-hour surgery that removed a one-inch tumor from her tongue, reconstructed the tongue and performed a radical neck dissection that removed lymph nodes on the left side of her neck to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread.

The diagnosis and procedure may have been 18 years ago, but the lingering effects from the cancer are never far from the surface.

“Some days I pretend it never actually happened, but I still have residual neck and shoulder pains from the surgery. So it’s never not there for me,” Blough said.

“Your life changes when that word enters your life. You have your life before cancer and after you become a survivor, it’s always there, but, thankfully, you’re a survivor.”

The stiff and sore neck — probably because scar tissue has built up around the staples that are still there — only serves to remind of the entirety of the event. It started with the official diagnosis from a biopsy, which led to a fleeing to her father’s office and sobbing in his arms, followed by going home to share the news — and wine — with a neighbor. Then a meeting with a plastic surgeon who could handle the reconstruction — and Blough determined not to leave that office until surgery was scheduled. Then the intentional shutting out of her three children during the process, protection at the forefront of her mind. Then the lengthy surgery and waking up without swelling, which meant answered prayers of not needing a tracheostomy or a feeding tube. Then the 10-day hospital stay in which “food” translated to “IV.” Then the shocking — to her doctor, at least — ultimate ability of smooth speech, without therapy.

When Blough lines up for The Challenge 5K run/walk Saturday morning near Ross-Ade Stadium — where her son David will play quarterback for the Boilermakers hours later in the spring game — she’ll likely flash back to the experience. She’ll share it with others, and maybe offer fellow survivors and current sufferers details about another cancer she battled and beat three years ago. Maybe she’ll counsel some fellow participants, offer insight into where she drew strength and how she overcame. Maybe she’ll share her faith.

Mostly, though, LuAnn Blough simply will radiate an aura of gratitude, of joy, of hope.

Because though Saturday may be a “race,” this event isn’t really a physical one. It’s one designed to continue to build momentum in the ultimate fight: By supporting the mission of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research, which strives to promote discovery into how cancers develop, progress and respond to treatment; to work toward the advancement of new medicines, early detection, diagnostic methods and more effective treatments; and highly efficient drug delivery systems. It is work toward eradicating the vicious disease that violates and invades so many.

But this “race” aims to alter the course.

All the money raised for the event goes to support cancer research. Sponsors offset the costs so all participants’ registration fees and donations go directly to the research center.

“We don’t know when the difference is going to be made,” said football coach Darrell Hazell, who is a four-time honorary chair of the event. “But we have to be apart of that for anything to ever happen.”

Though the Challenge began in 2008, well before Hazell’s days at Purdue, well before LuAnn Blough’s involvement, the event continues to inspire loyalty and support from the community and beyond.

Entering this year’s race, $490,000 has been raised for cancer research at Purdue, including registration fees and team fundraising pledges. As of Monday, nearly $31,500 had been raised from the fundraising portion and 1,375 participants had registered for Saturday’s race.

This year’s goal is to raise $100,000 for the Center of Cancer Research, one of only seven institutions in the United States designated by the National Cancer Institute as a basic-research cancer center.

“The cancer walk is all corporately underwritten so almost all of the money goes directly to research as opposed to marketing, which is a fabulous thing and that’s part of the reason why I’m passionate about it and why I’m beating everybody up to raise money,” LuAnn Blough said last week from her home in Texas. “I’m hitting up the Purdue alumni clubs in San Antonio and Houston and Dallas up here. I’ve gotten some support from them, just saying, ‘Let’s show them we do it right from Texas.’ That’s the good thing. It’s a friendly competition between the teams, but at the end of the day, it’s all going to a good cause.”

Before the race, Hazell and many of his players join the participants near the start line. Many other athletes and coaches from Purdue are involved as well, some actually participating in the run/walk. What they see beforehand: Colorful T-shirts, oftentimes fronted with creative team names, and bibs adorned with names “in honor of” or “in memory of.”

This will be LuAnn Blough’s third time participating in the race, and she initially planned to have a handful of names written on her T-shirt — women she knows who are currently battling breast cancer. But about two weeks before the race, she changed the plan. On Saturday, she hopes to be loading up with so many names they run together on the black-and-gold shirt of the “Kickin’ It” team. For people who pledged support, Blough asked them to provide a name they’d like represented on the shirt. As of Monday, there were more than 50 donors as she’d raised $3,070. That’s $670 more than she’d raised the previous two years combined.

That total put her among the individual fundraising leaders as of Monday, and team “Kickin’ It” has raised a group-high $9,045.

David Blough isn’t surprised with his mom’s passion for the event or the money that’s being racked up by her.

“My mom and I and my oldest brother (Matt) kind of have a salesman mentality. We’re the fundraisers in the family … and my mom is really good at it. She’ll make friends with anybody,” David Blough said. “It’s important to her because she’s been affected by it. This Purdue cancer research center has done so much work, and she wants to help.

“She’s competitive with it. I think that I get that from her.”

That specific competition element will ebb when Saturday’s literal race begins. But it’ll never ease up in the big-picture one.

Because, on Saturday, LuAnn Blough will be surrounded by survivors.

People like Amy Karpick (breast cancer), whose husband Alan is Gold and Black’s publisher and on the board of the Challenge; Terry Kix (stomach cancer), Purdue women’s basketball’s director of operations; and Amy Fisher (breast cancer), a dietician at Fisher Wellness.

But, on Saturday, LuAnn Blough also will be surrounded by others who have known significant loss.

On Purdue’s football coaching staff alone, Hazell’s father died of prostate cancer and offensive coordinator Terry Malone’s father died of cancer. Former Boilermaker linebacker Bart Conley, whose wife Jill died in February after a six-and-a-half-year battle that started as breast cancer but spread to her bones, lungs and liver, will be given a game ball before the spring game.

At some point in all of those journeys — whether personally being ravaged by the disease and its treatments or watching someone else experience it — likely there were moments of despair, of uncertainty, of heartache.

But, like those engaged in the battle, it’s important to stay focused on one thing: The victory is in the fight, not the outcome.

And The Challenge is about the fight.

“There’s lots of hope, and that’s why we do this,” Hazell said. “At some point in time, we’re going to find the answer to this problem. You see the energy and the people out there with the smiles on their faces, knowing that they’re helping to make strides toward finding the answer for this problem. I think that’s what gives us all hope.”

Even when it may be tough to find.

LuAnn Blough is not a smoker. She tried a cigarette only once — “so that if I my kids ever said, ‘Mom, how do you know you don’t like it?’ I can say, ‘Well, I did it once.’” There was no history of oral cancer in her family, at least that she knows of. But that didn’t stop her from looking for a reason anyway.

She counseled a group of women for her surgeon in the hospital afterward and noticed they were all native Midwesterners and blonde — except for one brunette from West Texas.

“So that totally blew my theory out of the water,” Blough said. “I think that’s what I learned is that there’s no reason for cancer. You can’t look for a cause and effect all the time. It hits and there’s no respect for demographics or age or education or anything.”

That’ll be evident just before kickoff for the spring game Saturday.

For the second consecutive year, Hazell has invited cancer survivors and sufferers into Purdue’s locker room before the game, and then that group will walk out together, many locked arm-in-arm, onto the field before the 1 p.m. start.

LuAnn Blough will be there with David, who expects to firmly appreciate the moment.

“It’s just going to be special to be in there with her and have my arm around her coming out,” David Blough said. “The spring game, I’ve realized, it’s a lot of fun and it’s supposed to be for moments like this. Moments like this, you don’t get too many of them. I’m just thankful for her. It’ll be cool to share this with her.

“I love her a lot. I know I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for her.”

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