Running for Ragan: Event raises money, awareness in Cape native's memory

Friday, October 12, 2012
Photo by Carrie Perez of Photography by Carrie

Ragan Ward Neilson never should have had breast cancer.

She was only 32 -- a young wife and mother who loved to hike and bike, had a Ph.D. in industrial-occupational psychology, was a strong and faithful Christian, and did her breast self-exams regularly.

It wasn't long after Ragan became pregnant with her first child that she noticed a small lump in her breast. Michelle Alvey remembers that her baby sister was worried about the lump -- but when she told her doctor about it, he didn't seem concerned. He said he would keep an eye on the lump, but did not recommend a mammogram or biopsy or refer her to a specialist.

"The doctor told her it was pregnancy-related and she accepted that. I don't think she questioned it because she trusted her doctor," says Alvey. "Our dad is a doctor, so we grew up believing that in general, a doctor gives good advice and you can rely on it."

On Sept. 12, 2006, Ragan gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Liliana Rae. Ragan had grown up in Cape Girardeau but lived in Colorado with her husband Kerry Neilson. Her parents, Barbara and Dr. Robert Ward, still lived in Cape Girardeau but headed west to welcome their grandbaby and help out after her birth. By the time of their six-week checkup, the lump in Ragan's breast had grown so big that she could see it, not just feel it. She showed it to her mother and doctor, and they quickly took action.

A biopsy was done on Ragan's breast, and a surgeon confirmed that she had stage four triple negative breast cancer. Ragan immediately began seeing a breast specialist, followed by aggressive chemotherapy, a stem cell rescue treatment, a double mastectomy and radiation.

Things were looking up by August 2007, when Ragan had a clear PET scan. She celebrated Lili's first birthday in September, and in the first week of October, she walked a Susan G. Komen 5K "Race for the Cure" while pushing Lili in her stroller.

Ragan, Lilli and Ragan's mother, Barb Ward of Cape Girardeau. (submitted photo)

On Oct. 20, Ragan was getting ready for an annual "sisters weekend" with her mom, sisters, aunts and cousins -- but the day before they were to arrive in Colorado, Ragan went to the hospital and found out the cancer had spread to her liver and lungs.

"It was pretty quick after that," says Alvey. Ragan passed away at home on Oct. 29, 2007. "She was a great mom," says Alvey. "When it became clear that she was not likely going to make it ... the saddest thing was knowing that Lili was not going to have a mom. She did everything she could to prolong her life and be around her daughter."

Still, Ragan's friends and family recall that she remained positive throughout her short battle with cancer, and they've tried to do the same since her death.

"She was a great listener. She was always there for me any time I needed advice or anything else. She gave great advice," says Alvey. "She was very humble but so positive. Even through her sickness, she had the best attitude. I was just reading through her journal, and it's amazing to me how positive she stayed through everything. She thought of others more than herself."

On Oct. 13, a Run-Ride for Ragan Biathlon will be hosted by the Java Joggers, a group of pals, including Ragan's mother, who have met to exercise and drink coffee for more than 15 years. Proceeds from the event will benefit the American Cancer Society's local patient services fund, which helps provide wigs, turbans, bras, mammograms and other needs for people affected by cancer.

"Because Ragan's name is tied to it, it's become very personal," says Java Jogger Tracy Blattner. Ragan's parents and sisters will be at the event, as will many other friends and family members.

"You can't really live with what-ifs. We'll never know for certain how things would have turned out (if she'd had a mammogram)," says Alvey. "The main thing would be, if you have breast cancer, to not give up hope. Ragan never gave up, and even though her story didn't turn out well, she wouldn't want others to be discouraged by what happened to her. She would want people to be inspired to make sure they're taking care of themselves and getting good health care early on. Even reading back through her journals about everything she went through -- she tried to give words of encouragement to everyone else. She was the most positive, encouraging, selfless person I've ever known."

The Java Joggers hope the biathlon will become an annual event to honor Ragan's memory and bring awareness that breast cancer does happen to young, healthy women -- and that it's OK to ask questions and take health care decisions into your own hands.

"We don't want everybody's story to be Ragan's story," says Blattner. "Women need to take charge of their health care. If you think you need a mammogram, go get it. If you think you don't have enough money for it or your insurance won't cover it, that is not a closed door."

Run-Ride for Ragan Biathlon

* When: Saturday, Oct. 13. The one-mile memorial honor walk will be at 7 a.m.; the biathlon (a 5k run and 17-mile bike ride) will begin at 8.

* Where: Boardman/Hutson Pavilion in downtown Cape Girardeau

* How to register: Registration for the biathlon will be accepted through Friday, Oct. 12. The cost is $35 for an individual or $65 for a team. Those wanting to do only the Memorial/Honor Walk can register the morning of the event; the cost is $25.

Registration forms are available at Cape Bicycle and Fitness, Cyclewerx, Fitness Plus, HealthPoint Fitness, Missouri Running Co. and Top of the Line Athletics. Call 573-450-0545 for more information.