Making it to the top of the hill. Together.
Meet the Splitstones
It took 15 years and two cancer diagnoses for Don and Stacy Splitstone to meet. But when they did, their lives both changed forever.
Stacy is the Chief Accounting Officer at UPMC. In late 2008, not long after moving to Pittsburgh from Atlanta, she was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Stacy began treatment at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in December, finishing her chemotherapy and radiation in August 2009.
That summer her sister-in-law decided to show support for Stacy’s journey by joining the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and running a half-marathon in Stacy’s honor. “I was inspired,” Stacy recalls, “but also really angry—not at cancer, not at anyone. I was angry at my body. ‘Why did you do this? I’m in my mid-thirties. I’m supposed to be strong.” As a way of regaining some measure of control, Stacy decided to join the Society.
A sprinter in high school who’d never considered running more than a half-mile, Stacy ran several half-marathons to raise money. “Then in 2010,” she says, “a group of runners said, ‘we’re going to do a century bike ride with the LLS.’ They talked me into it, and I started training in January 2011. LLS provides coaches for endurance events. Don was one of my coaches. That’s how we met.”
“He was a tough coach. A couple times going uphill I became unclipped and lost my momentum such that I had to get off my bike and push it the rest of the way up the hill. He made me go back to the bottom of the hill and ride back up. My first thought was, ‘that was mean.’ My second thought was, ‘I sure would like to marry this man.’”
As the two got to know each other, they discovered they were the same age, and had attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio at the same time. But since Stacy majored in accounting and Don was a physics major, and her sorority and his fraternity didn’t interact, their paths never crossed. “We can still lay claim to the title of Miami Merger,” says Don. “It’s a thing at Miami. Most people meet and start dating at Miami. Just took us 15 years.”
“Twenty months after we met, we got married,” says Stacy. “There comes a point, you just kind of know. When you’re younger you think, I want him there for all of life’s successes, to have fun with, enjoy the high points together. Then, having gone through cancer. I thought, the key to success in a marriage is finding someone you want to be there for the tough times too. I don’t know if we’d have connected when we were 22. It took us till we were 37.”
Don, who is Senior Engineering Manager at GAI Consultants, started raising money for cancer research in 2000 after his mother was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He’d been involved with running and endurance events for many years but had only dabbled in cycling.
A friend who had joined LLS’s Team in Training program learned about Don’s mother and invited him to join some of the rides. “It was a way I could empathize with my mom,” recalls Don. “She’d experienced not knowing how her body would handle a bone marrow transplant…so for me, it was ‘how is my body going to handle a 100-mile bike ride?’” Don participated in several Team in Training century rides while his parents were in Seattle for his mother’s treatment. He immersed himself in the group, becoming a mentor and then coach.
Today, Stacy is cancer clear. “Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is one disease that oncologists are willing to use the C word, cured. I only have follow-ups for risk of secondary cancer because I had so much radiation to my chest. So as high-risk for breast cancer, I have more regular screenings than the average female. I can’t say enough about the treatment I received, the people I met through Hillman—not only the doctors but the nurses. They were amazing. It’s a special person who pursues a career in that field. And I had a terrific support group. My mom would drive from D.C. every two weeks and stay five days. She’d take me to treatment and hold down the fort. My co-workers really stepped up throughout the nine months of intense treatment. One drove me to a treatment and stayed with me for the entire day when my mom couldn’t make it to Pittsburgh given a snowstorm in DC. Another shaved my head…you don’t ask just anybody to shave your head.”
UPMC Hillman’s Rush to Crush Cancer event is a way for Stacy to return some of that support—and another challenge. “When we got the notice, I saw there were 15, 40 and 60- mile options,” she says. “I told Don, ‘You’re not going to let me do anything less than the 60 miles, are you?’ So we both plan to do it. I’ll have to train a lot harder than him to get back into cycling shape. The day after chemo treatment, it’s an exhaustion you can’t describe. Trying to pedal up a hill, training for a ride like this event…it’s not the worst thing I’ve endured.
We’ll be there for two reasons: one, to raise as much money as we can; and two, to show support for the community—Pittsburgh, and the community that’s affected by cancer…not just patients and families. We’re really looking forward to being part of the inaugural event.”
“It’s about working with people to achieve a goal,” adds Don, “Groups of friends participating in the event, dealing with sometimes not-so-friendly weather as they get prepared, it’ll help not only achieve their endurance goal but also share their stories, realize they’re not alone in their journey, learn from each other how they’ve navigated the experience of cancer, whether as a patient or caregiver.”
“It’s all about support,” adds Stacy. “As a survivor, you become part of an unspoken community. I’ll never forget another co-worker telling me he’d been diagnosed. He was scared, I said, ‘once you’re done, we’ll let you into the Cancer Survivors Club. More people we can invite into that club, the better'.”