With a softball tourney, woman plays hardball against deadly disease

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Danielle Fogarty (left), who has organized a memorial softball tournament in Greenport to support cancer research, with friend Donna Giancontieri, a leukemia survivor.

When Cutchogue resident Danielle Fogarty battled anorexia as a teenager, she never thought the experience of overcoming the disease would help decide her career path.

But Ms. Fogarty, now a married 36-year-old with two daughters, didn’t choose to study eating disorders.

While recovering from her illness in the adolescent unit at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, Ms. Fogarty said she was inspired to find a cure for cancer after meeting children there suffering from leukemia.

“Although anorexia is a true illness, I felt that I still had control while these little kids had no control on what was going on in their lives,” she said.

Ms. Fogarty then decided to combine her passion for running with her determination to find a cure for cancer. Shortly before graduating from Stony Brook University in 2001 with a degree in social work, she joined the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training and has since participated in several marathons aimed at raising cancer awareness and money to combat the disease.

And now, she has also organized a memorial benefit softball tournament in Greenport this month, which is also Blood Cancer Awareness Month.

The tournament will be held in memory of Alex Mele, whom Ms. Fogarty met while working at Stony Brook as a pediatric oncology social worker.

Alex, an avid baseball fan from Coram who played first base and catcher for the Longwood JV team, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in November 2008. The disease quickly sent him and his family and friends on a feverish search for a bone marrow match.

The community advertised through Stony Brook University Medical Center’s public relations department, the media, signs posted in neighborhoods and several email campaigns to get as many people in the area tested to see if they matched as a bone marrow donor. More than 1,000 people showed up at several testing sites to see if they could help.

Alex’s ordeal wasn’t the first tragedy to strike the Mele household. His mother, Lisa, had died in June 2007 of congestive heart failure at 39.

Alex finally received a bone marrow transplant. But having spent the previous 15 months fighting the deadly disease, his body was already weakened. After a two-year battle, Alex died in August 2010, one week shy of his 17th birthday.

Ms. Fogarty said Alex’s father, Lou, was touched by her memorial softball tournament idea.

“He said ‘Anything you can do to get rid of the awful disease, please do,’,” she said. “Everyone knows someone like Alex. Everyone has either a brother, a son, a friend, a classmate. They know someone in their lives that could be like Alex, where one second your life is just how you expect and then the next day something comes along and changes everything.”

One of those people is Donna Giancontieri, a 47-year-old leukemia survivor from Cutchogue. She described being diagnosed with the disease in 2009 as “being robbed by a thief in the night.”

“Thursday I felt fine,” she recalled. “Friday I didn’t feel great, but I wasn’t too worried. Saturday I was at the blood cancer unit at Stony Brook with a very advance stage of leukemia.”

While she was recovering, Ms. Giancontieri said her husband, Lou, decided to get involved with Team in Training and the couple later met Ms. Fogarty.

Ms. Giancontieri said she attributes her successful battle with cancer to Ms. Fogarty’s determination to find a cure.

“As a survivor, I have my reasons for getting involved,” she said. “But for somebody like Danielle, who’s just doing this purely out of the goodness of her heart, it’s just amazing.”

The inaugural Alex S. Mele Memorial Softball Tournament for a Cure is scheduled for noon on Sunday, Sept. 30, at the polo grounds in Greenport. All proceeds will go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For more information about Ms. Fogarty’s fundraising efforts, visit her Team in Training website.

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