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Former standout races toward a cancer cure

Sept. 24, 2010

Valerie Niese Nolin's legacy will be of a daughter's love and a promise kept a thousand times over.

You could see that in the former Menomonee Falls distance running star's every motion on a rainy Saturday morning at Greenfield Park, taking earnest hugs, acknowledging sincere "thank you's" and finishing up the final details of her fifth annual Nancy's Run, Rock and Roll, a benefit for ovarian cancer research.

The event, which also benefits the Wisconsin Ovarian Cancer Alliance, or WOCA, boasted well more than 500 participants, including walkers, runners, strollers and officially entered dogs, who were among those who most enjoyed the sloppy weather.

There were memory boards where people could write in personal recollections, a group photo of survivors in front of the park's pond and Nolin's good friend, local country singer Geoff Landon, keeping everyone entertained despite the fact that rain and electronics generally don't mix well.

Nolin and her helpers have raised tens of thousands of dollars with this event since 2005, the year her mother, Nancy Niese, was taken by the disease at the too-young age of 64.

It was something Nolin had to do, as she promised her mother on her deathbed that she would do everything in her power to beat the disease.

"I think it really helped me through the grieving process," Nolin said. "I had a lot of anger at first and I needed to work through it. We worked hard and amazingly planned the first one in two months. We had it in Whitnall Park, got over 400 runners involved and raised over $9,000."

Nolin has gotten used to doing things quickly. An all-state cross country and track runner for the Indians in the early 1990s, she learned of her mother's diagnosis in 2003. It was a particularly virulent form of the disease, so Nolin wanted to do as many things for her mother as possible as quickly as possible.

That included coaxing a marriage proposal out of her longtime boyfriend - and now husband - Tom Nolin and then planning her wedding in just two months.

"We got married in July of 2003 and Mom was able to dance at the wedding in her heels," Nolin said a touch tearfully. A runner herself, Nancy Niese survived more than two years, well past her initial diagnosis of just six months.

Nolin joined the WOCA board within months of her mother's passing and hasn't looked back since as the self-described "shy person" has continued to build the run. It's had homes in Franklin and Wauwatosa and now, hopefully, a permanent one at Greenfield, just down the road from the WOCA headquarters in New Berlin.

She has also gone to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress on behalf of more funding for ovarian cancer research - currently, there's not much - and urges others to be aware of the disease, which has no effective early test and is frequently misdiagnosed.

"I always wanted to think big with this," she said. "I always wanted to make it better." That's why this year she included the Rascal Romp for children 8 and younger and is working with WOCA for an official event for the dogs next year called Bark in the Park.

Her efforts have made an impression on many people, including her old CC and track coach Wayne Bohlmann, a recent inductee in the Menomonee Falls Athletic Hall of Fame, who was able to participate and medal in the event for the first time this year.

"She really was such a quiet person," Bohlmann said. "She was a JV runner as a freshman and was our third runner (in cross country) for much of her sophomore year. I told her right before the conference race that year that she could win it if she wanted to. She told me that I was crazy, but then she went out and did it."

Nolin's efforts impressed Bohlmann.

"I'm not surprised, because Val has never been one who has lacked for energy."

Nolin ran at UW-Parkside, earning national honors including Academic All-America status, before changing majors and graduating with a degree in social work from UW-Milwaukee. She is happily employed as the activities director for Heritage Square Health Care Center.

Nolin continues to run, remaining active with the Badgerland Striders. She has a couple marathons on her running résumé.

What has made her most happy, however, is to see her father, also named Tom, coming out to the event and cheerfully helping. Nolin thinks her mother would be most pleased with the fact that her father was just recently engaged to be married.

"She (Mom) always wanted him to be happy," Nolin said.

And in a note of full disclosure, I want to thank Nolin myself from the bottom of my heart, as my wife - a survivor herself - and I took part in this beautiful walk in the woods surrounded by a sea of T-shirts in teal, the official color of the awareness program.

It's a lovely event for a messy disease that needs more exposure and more funding and more people like her involved. Here's to more "shy people" like Nolin stepping out of their shells and racing effectively and forcefully toward a cure.

What to watch for

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

• Bloating and gas along with pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary tract symptoms (urgency or frequency).

• Most women are diagnosed at later stages, when the survival rate is 25 percent. Early detection can improve that to 90 percent.

• Symptoms are subtle and persistent and the disease occurs in one out of 69 women at any age. One WOCA board member, a survivor, is only 25.

• If symptoms persist daily for more than a few weeks, see a doctor. Ultrasounds and a CA 125 blood test are the best tools for detection.

• For information, call WOCA at (262) 797-7804 or visit wisconsinovariancancer.com.

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