By Dave Ruden
FAIRFIELD — The friendship between Karin Andren Keith and Amy Nessel has been its own 26.2-mile course, full of hills, smooth paths and distance, dating back to when they were 12 years old growing up in Fairfield.
They graduated what was then known as Roger Ludlowe High School in 1987; Andren Keith an outstanding swimmer who would go on to compete at the University of North Carolina, Nessel a standout in field hockey and tennis.
The two, now 44, lost touch for a while as Nessel resided in different parts of the country before returning to Fairfield 10 years ago.
On Sunday, when Andren Keith runs for the first time in the New York City Marathon, 26.2 miles will be more like an umbilical cord linking their bond. Andren Keith’s impetus is to raise money for the Connecticut Challenge in honor of Nessel, who has been getting support at the facility since being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2010.
“For me, one of the greatest things being an athlete is being part of a team and working toward a common goal,” Andren Keith said. “Amy is such an inspiration. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She’s unbelievable.”
Nessel initially underwent a double mastectomy. Her diagnosis gave her two years to live.
“At first it was deep shock,” Nessel recalled. “Everything flashed before my eyes. I’m competitive, so I dissected my opponent. You have to find a new normal.”
Nessel, a guidance counselor at Fairfield Ludlowe Middle School who this year is on medical leave, has been getting weekly chemotherapy treatments. Without exception, no matter the weather, she walks all four miles for each one, accompanied by one of a rotation of 10 friends who have become part of her support system.
Each round, Nessel said, lasts anywhere from two to four hours. She has undergone 16 different protocols, but for the first 18 months nothing worked.
Nessel, a single mother of a 10-year-old, kept an optimistic outlook despite discouraging setbacks. The cancer was also in her liver when diagnosed, then metastasized to her liver, bones and an abdominal lymph node. She said the low point came this past July, when it was discovered the disease had also spread to her brain.
“That was the worst news. I try really hard to live in the moment,” said Nessel, who talks about her experience in tempered, resolute tones. “I liken the disease to climbing a tree and going out on a limb too far. You have to stay close to the trunk.”
Nessel rests up and takes naps so she can be as active as possible, whether it is playing tennis or taking walks.
The battle never has been fought alone.
“I have the most incredible group of friends,” Nessel said. “Their faithfulness. Who commits to the weekly thing? And we’re not done.”
The news of Nessel’s illness struck Andren Keith on a number of levels.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Andren Keith, who is a real estate agent. “She’s my age and a good friend. I’m also married to someone who had cancer when he was 12 years old and is healthy and active. I live with a cancer survivor. People can survive and beat the odds.”
Jeff Keith, Andren Keith’s husband, had his right leg amputated above the knee two weeks after his diagnosis. He went on to national acclaim in 1985 when he became the first amputee to run across the United States; it took nine months and Keith raised over $1 million for the American Cancer Society.
Keith has continued his philanthropic endeavors: he founded the Swim Across America, Swim Across the Sound and, in 2005, co-founded and became president of the Connecticut Challenge, a center for cancer survivorship located in Fairfield.
The mission statement: “The Connecticut Challenge empowers cancer survivors to live healthier, happier and longer lives by creating and funding unique survivorship programs and research. In 2012, programs funded by the CT Challenge impacted the lives of over 54,000 cancer survivors.”
“It’s a soft place to land,” Nessel said.
Andren Keith said she was amazed how fast Nessel’s reaction morphed from fear to becoming proactive.
“Initially she was in total denial,” Andren Keith said. “Something’s got to be wrong. That ended pretty quickly, and she said we have to come up with a plan. She approached it like an athlete. What do we have to do? I’m trying to support her and she is supporting me.”
Andren Keith, who took up running four years ago, participated in her first marathon, in Hartford, two years ago.
“I didn’t run as well as I wanted,” she said. “I walked a lot for 10 miles.”
Andren Keith decided last year she would run in the New York City Marathon in honor of Nessel, training in a T shirt that reads “I Run 4 Amy.”
When the marathon was canceled because of Superstorm Sandy, Keith set up a 26.2-mile course from Westport to Fairfield, and Andren Keith and a small group affiliated with the Connecticut Challenge ran it. Nessel, on her bicycle, followed along.
“That was an unbelievable experience,” Andren Keith said.
Nessel’s current status has improved markedly since the summer. The medical terminology is “there is no evidence of the disease,” but because of its nature she will have to continue chemotherapy treatments for the rest of her life.
A year later than expected, Andren Keith will be running Sunday on behalf of her childhood friend in the New York Marathon — “my first and last one,” she said with a chuckle.
Nessel’s stoic nature softened as she listened to Andren Keith talk about her motivation for training an extra 365 days.
“She is just an incredible friend,” Nessel said. “I’m just trying to settle in. Sometimes I do really well. Sometimes I don’t. It is like living with a chronic disease. I’m living as well as I can.”
(To contribute to Andren Keith’s fundraising effort, click here)