Lisa Thorndike found support groups she never knew she was looking for through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Leukemia Cup Regatta.
The England native and Hopewell resident has lived with multiple myeloma for almost three decades. For 27 years, she has been attending and raising money for the annual regatta, a fundraising sailing event held at yacht clubs all over the nation.
She says these events have connected her with lifelong friends while she battles multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable blood cancer that forms in white blood cells known as plasma cells. And she has personally raised nearly half a million dollars for the regatta, money that organizers say goes toward life-saving research and treatment.^
Thorndike, 78, has had 36 bone marrow biopsies, and expects to have more due to her condition, in which cancer cells overpower healthy cells in the bone marrow.
This year, she has raised around $22,000 even while undergoing chemotherapy and infusions of Darzalex, a monoclonal antibody meant to slow multiple myeloma’s progression.
Despite receiving her weekly infusion for four hours through an IV and experiencing the nausea that accompanies it, Thorndike says she always looks for the positives.
She hopes to reach $24,000 by the time she attends the Leukemia Cup Regatta Aug. 9–11 at the Ocean City Yacht Club. There she will look forward to renewing old acquaintances.
“You see all your friends but unfortunately, some of them do not come back,” she says.
Each regatta features a number of sailing competitions for which participants form crews and compete against one another.
“They’re raising money for blood cancer and they’re having fun doing it,” says Thorndike, who has attended Leukemia Cup Regattas at many different yacht clubs through the years.
She is around $15,000 away from her fundraising goal of half a million, and says her fundraising efforts include writing to the pharmaceutical companies of the drugs she takes, selling advertisement pages of the event’s program book, and going down her Christmas card list asking friends.
Participants who raise at least $15,000 at Regattas nationwide are honored at the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Fantasy Sail event, held at a different yacht club each year.
Thorndike has reached the number every year since she began, with her record fundraising amount for a year being $28,000.
Thorndike does not participate in the actual sailing at the events, saying she is not a racer. However, one year at a Fantasy Sail in Los Angeles, she joined a boat as a crew member, saying she received “boat bite” bruises.
She is being recognized at this year’s Fantasy Sail, to be held in in Fort Myers, Florida, although she will not be in attendance. She will be going to Hawaii to see her son, Alden Thorndike IV, run a marathon.
“Family has to come first,” she says.
Thorndike, originally from England, came to America in 1962, when she was 21. She lived in Minneapolis with her aunt, grandmother and cousins for a year, then moved to San Francisco, where she met her ex-husband, the late Alden Thorndike III, who lived in Sausalito. They married in England and settled in central New Jersey, living first in Princeton, then Ringoes and finally, in 1974, Hopewell Township.
Lisa worked in human resources at Bristol-Myers Squibb for 26 years, and the couple had two sons: Alden IV, now 50, and Michael, now 48, both of whom went to Hopewell Valley Schools.
Thorndike had been involved with fundraising long before the Leukemia Cup Regattas. As a supporter of the arts, she was a former guild president of the June Opera Festival, which is now the Princeton Festival. The opera has always been a passion of hers.
“Raising money for opera is like pulling teeth, people think you’re crazy,” she says. “Raising money for cancer is still difficult, but it’s a lot easier.”
A day came when Thorndike began to experience back pain, which she presumed to be arthritis. She sought answers at Princeton Sports Medicine. “At first they thought maybe I was out of alignment,” Thorndike says.
It was after an MRI that her doctors suggested she see an oncologist. She was diagnosed with solitary plasmacytoma in 1993, a disorder like multiple myeloma but localized, rather than spread throughout the body.
The same year, Thorndike went to the first of what would be her many Leukemia Cup Regattas. She says she used to support the Cape May Stage theater, and read in a newspaper that a Leukemia Cup Regatta was being held there.
“I thought, ‘I’ve never seen the yacht club,’” Thorndike recalls, jokingly saying the exclusive yacht club in Cape May was the one bar in that town that she had never been to. The event was in need of a photographer, so Thorndike volunteered.
In 1995 at Fox Chase Cancer Center, she was diagnosed with smoldering myeloma, a precursor of multiple myeloma. Then, in 1997—“the year Princess Diana died,” as Thorndike thinks of it—she received her diagnosis of multiple myeloma.
Eventually, she would need two stem cell transplants, which she says Fox Chase Cancer Center was not equipped for at the time. She flew out to Little Rock, which she says was then the “multiple myeloma capital of the world,” to receive transplants at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. She stopped working at Bristol Myers Squibb for a year.
Thorndike flew out and received her transplants alone, since her sons were attending college at the time. To her surprise, she noticed many others were receiving stem cell transplants solo.
“By coincidence I had friends there, interns for Bristol-Myers Squibb, who were pharmacy medical students,” she says. They helped with her transplants, and still keep in touch with her today.
After the transplants, she went into remission and on disability, eventually retiring from Bristol-Myers Squibb. “I’ve been in and out of remission ever since,” she says. “I can’t count how many times.”
Her doctor in Little Rock moved to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where she has been going ever since.
Thorndike says the Leukemia Cup Regattas are fun and she’ll keep doing them for as long as she can.
She says she has yet to lose ambition for her passions. Sometimes when she is in New York for treatment, she will try to see a play or a ballet. She also says she is in the process of writing her own opera and is on the hunt for a composer to collaborate with.
“I have things on my list,” she says. “I want to become a famous author.”