Penny McCormick meets Aisling Hurley, CEO of Breast Cancer Ireland …
Over 45,000 people have taken part in the Great Pink Run since it began ten years ago, raising over €2.1 million for breast cancer research and awareness programmes nationally. Aisling Hurley, CEO of Breast Cancer Ireland, believes the strength of the pink movement has not only raised awareness but also changed the landscape of this disease. In the last ten years survival rates have been improving, mortality rates reducing annually and more importantly, every patient now diagnosed receives their own personalised treatment plan – transforming the disease in many cases from a fatal to treatable illness.
Take us back to the beginning, how and where did the Great Pink Run begin?
Back in 2010, people were starting to participate in bootcamps locally as a means of getting fit and so I thought I would create an event that brings men, women and children together to support each other, and at the same time raise funding for our pioneering research efforts and so the Great Pink Run began. The first run in 2011 had just 1,100 participants at the old Point Depot car park. It stayed there through 2012, and in 2013, we moved it to Phoenix Park. We felt that by locating it in the Park it could grow without compromise. People came from Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Belfast, the UK, France and even from the US to take part. Last year we had over 6,700 on a very blustery, wet Saturday. Meanwhile, in 2017, with the support of our long-time sponsors, Glanbia and associate sponsors Aut Even Hospital Kilkenny, the decision was taken to bring the Great Pink Run to its first venue outside Dublin, to Kilkenny. Again, the numbers started off at around 1,000 and then grew steadily to just under 3,000 in 2019.
What have been some of the most significant milestones along the way?
Following the success of the event in 2018, which raised over €350,000, the board of BCI decided to support the creation of a Triple Negative Breast Cancer Research Fellowship award. Triple Negative Breast Cancer is a subtype breast cancer that affects primarily women under 40 years of age. Women who are still in their reproductive years, yet the treatment has not changed in decades. These young women have to undergo the age-old treatment of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy which can in turn affect their fertility. This is a very challenging subtype and so we made a national appeal to research teams on the island of Ireland, seeking to find the best and most innovative team that would look at newer and more effective targeted therapies for this cohort of patients. Dr Paul Mullan and his team at Queens University, Belfast were the successful recipients after an international panel review. Dr Mullan is now in his third year of the award and very promising lab results are progressing soon into clinical trials.
Also in 2018, BCI funded an International Breast Cancer Symposium that brought together the leading scientists and researchers in this arena to Dublin to share insights and offer collaborations. Through our partnership with the Breast Cancer Research Centre at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland we began exploring how we could maximise our impact if we were to assist them in a collaboration. In 2019, we decided to host the first overseas Great Pink Run in Chicago and we teamed up with the world-renowned Ludwig Breast Research Centre at the University of Chicago. Their key focus is on supporting research into metastatic disease and they complimented greatly the work of our research centre at RCSI.
Metastatic disease is where, having treated the initial breast cancer diagnosis, tumours reappear after a few years, but in other major organs of the body. These tumours have adapted and learnt how to evade the usual standard forms of treatment and so it’s very challenging but so vital that we seek to identify newer targeted therapies for these patients and ultimately transform this disease from often being fatal into a long term treatable illness. The Great Pink Run in 2019 raised over €610,000 for metastatic research.
Aisling Hurley, CEO of Breast Cancer Ireland
How have you been impacted by breast cancer personally?
Interestingly, as a family of six sisters my family had evaded the dreaded diagnosis until early in 2017. Statistically, 1 in 9 women will be affected in their lifetime and there were we, seven healthy women. Then in February 2017, my mum was going for her usual two-yearly mammogram and the radiologists spotted something. She underwent a lumpectomy and a course of radiation therapy. She didn’t require chemotherapy as the lump was caught so early. Mum is doing really well and will, in February 2021, come off her hormone therapy drugs, which she is thrilled about. Every year since 2017 Mum and Dad, my sisters, brothers-in-law, nephews and nieces have all taken part in the Great Pink Run and will be doing so in Limerick and in Dublin this year.
You must have experienced equal amounts of hope and sadness in your role?
Yes, of course, there are highs and lows. Thankfully more highs. But the lows are so very sad because we have built both professional and personal connections and relationships with so many over the years. I am delighted that we are investing in Triple Negative Breast Cancer because it affects so many young women, lots of whom we have met, and giving them light at the end of the tunnel with respect to having children in the future, post treatment, is so amazing. I am passionate and committed to investing in metastatic disease because sadly we have lost some amazing and inspiring women to this disease. We lost our good friend and long-term ambassador, Emma Hannigan in March 2018, and then just this year, amid the pandemic, we lost Edel Cannon, a young mum, in July. Both women were fearless and determined to explore every clinical trial offering available worldwide. They were champions of research and the need to invest in research into this disease and so we will proudly continue their legacy.
Now in its tenth year, how is the run taking place this year?
Given the strange climate that we are all in this year, the Great Pink Run is going virtual on October 17 – 18. Men, women and children can get involved and run, jog, or walk the 5k or 10k distance that weekend in their local neighbourhood or community park. We are asking them to register, upload their distance, share their photos and help us turn the globe pink! The circumference of the globe is 40,700km and so we need as many as possible to get involved and help us.
You have some impressive names involved as ambassadors …
We at Breast Cancer Ireland, are very fortunate, year on year, to have amazing support from so many. Elaine Crowley, Virgin Media Producer and Presenter has been an ambassador for many years and takes part in the Great Pink Run every year. Shane Byrne, former Irish rugby international is so supportive he too takes part, together with his wife and two daughters. Robbie Henshaw and Josh Van der Flier are also ambassadors, and while often conflicting with their Irish rugby fixtures in October, they are supportive at launch time and throughout the year. James Patrice, influencer and TV presenter, together with his mum Veronica (Fron) take part every year and this year Niamh Cullen, fitness and fashion influencer has come on board to encourage everyone to get involved.
If we’re not runners, does that matter?
You DO NOT have to be a runner. We are asking everyone to gather their tribe of family, friends, and work colleagues together and just move! You can run, jog or walk. Every kilometre logged will help turn the globe pink. We hope that over the weekend of October 17 – 18 we will see a sea of pink both nationally and globally across our online community, supporting us in our race for cure.
Need to Know: The cost of registration is €15 plus the cost of post and packaging. Each person who registers will receive a commemorative 10th anniversary T-shirt, a medal, face covering and also a personalised race bib; www.greatpinkrun.ie.
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