“Giving back” can mean different things to different people.
For some, it means opening wallets to purchase raffle tickets or bid on silent auction options. For others, it means hitting up friends and family for support and taking part in a charity run or bike ride. For participants of the Fight to End Cancer, it means a will to take up boxing, training intensely for months, and, finally, a competing in a boxing match watched by hundreds – all while raising precious dollars on the journey for cancer.
This year’s Fight to End Cancer (FTEC) fundraising gala took over the Old Mill on Saturday, June 2 in a sold-out event that offered no shortage of both entertainment value and dollars raised for the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation. Founded in 2011, the fundraiser has generated over $1,000,000 to date for the cause.
FTEC founder and executive director Jennifer Huggins acknowledges that there are many participatory charity events that accomplish “incredible triumphs,” but it is clear that there really is nothing quite like this one. “Fight To End Cancer is a movement that has been built as a community, with the vast amount of funds raised being the outcome rather than the vision,” said Huggins. “Our ‘why’ has given us purpose and opened the cause to be defined by each individual touched by cancer.”Compared to other sport-related fundraisers – which can feature hundreds or thousands of participants – Fight to End Cancer features just 10 boxers, all of whom started off as boxing newbies. The fundraiser is sanctioned by the governing body of boxing. The reasons to get involved, not surprisingly, are personal, and many of the boxers have been touched by cancer.
“I’ve always attended the event because my employer is one of the main sponsors,” said Alison Turnbull. “It was only when I attended the 2017 fight after just having lost my mother to pancreatic cancer that I decided to finally throw my hat in the ring.”
Similarly, losing a close family member to cancer was the reason Rick Dhillon found himself in the boxing ring, wanting, as he says, to be involved in something bigger than himself.
“In 2011, my older brother passed away from brain cancer. I saw firsthand what this disease does to the patient, and to all the loved ones in his/her corner,” said Dhillon. “We spend our days constantly chasing; chasing the best careers, best physiques, most money, seeking the perfect spouse, etc. My brother was only chasing the next moment or enjoying the current one, as he knew they were very few moments remaining. Watching that changed my perspective; I view things different than I once did. I know now that the biggest reason for my existence is to simply serve a purpose beyond me.”For some, the whole experience – from tryout to fight – is also a way to grieve lost loved ones in a different type of way. When boxer Dawn Millar lost her father, things felt so out of control that she couldn’t properly process and grieve.
“When I was presented with this opportunity, it felt like a second chance to truly mourn his passing, to come to terms with losing him so young and so suddenly,” said Millar. “It felt like I was given an opportunity to actually be in control in a way, and to do something meaningful to really fight back against cancer.” Fellow boxer Gavin Grant is one of the few who hasn’t been touched by cancer in his immediate family, but he said it was personal guilt about this that motivated his decision to get involved.
Deciding to participate is one thing. The challenges presented – from stage fright and the awkwardness of fundraising to rigorous training – are quite another. “The biggest challenge for me was learning to stay composed in the ring and learning everything from scratch,” said Tyler Smith. “There were many frustrating nights of getting my butt kicked in the ring during sparring sessions.” Many of the participants had never pushed themselves so hard physically, including Matthew Seahra, who said he had never done such demanding cardio in his life.
“I don’t like to fight. I have tremendous respect for the sport, but I can’t say I like it, so getting in the ring every day and taking punches was fundamentally hard for me to do,” said Grant. “However, I know how powerful the FTEC is and how the idea of getting into the ring to box can really inspire people to be generous. I wouldn’t have raised all of this money running or cycling, but boxing has a certain charisma, and I knew I could make a real difference if I just sucked it up and volunteered to get punched.”
Sean Lawler says that the biggest challenge was overcoming fear when he stepped into the ring to spar. “The punches didn’t actually hurt so much, but the fights always left me with the feeling that pain and injury were just around the corner,” said Lawler. “The key to getting around this was to trust my training and go through the fights.”Of course, life doesn’t slow down in all other areas once you’ve decided to participate in the fight. “Juggling life wasn’t easy. Training for this event take a lot of time and dedication and without it you are sure to injure yourself or not be ready,” said Rob Paniccia.
“Having to work all day, then rush down to the gym to train for up to three hours a night for three nights after work, and then go home and – although you’re exhausted – there is still your everyday life that you must handle. Then when you think it’s over, there are weekend training sessions, again planning your schedule with your family and everyday life to do what was required of an FTEC fighter. This is a huge commitment and consumes your life for 6-7 months, but I would not have traded this for anything. It was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Christina Vatsis also addresses the challenge of managing life outside of FTEC. “You never know what life’s going to throw at you,” said Vatsis. “While I was facing my own challenges outside, I had to stay committed to my deadlines and training. My other biggest challenge was going into the gym day in and day out and being reminded why I was there. If I wasn’t having my moments about the people that I’ve lost, I was having them for my teammates. I did not realize it would be that emotional of an experience.”Fundraising added a whole other layer to the challenge – something Dhillon said forced him to get out of his comfort zone as he isn’t used to asking for help. He wasn’t alone in this. “If it was a matter of just training for the fight, I do not think it would have been that bad; however, fundraising added a completely different element,” said Searha. “Given that a number of people my age do not have disposable income, with the help of my girlfriend I came up with several initiatives such as draws and raffles to bring in donations.”
From new bonds to new-found strength, the takeaways were plentiful. “You can do anything you set your mind to and put your whole heart into,” said Millar on lessons learned throughout her journey. “You only live once. When life gives you an incredible opportunity, no matter how terrifying, take the chance to do something truly amazing.” Once the big day arrived, it came with a well-earned sense of accomplishment. “My biggest takeaway was the completion. There were so many moments where I didn’t think I could make it through, but with the support of my teammates, my coaches, and my family, I was able to,” said Vatsis.
The funds raised during the FTEC played a major role in reaching the organization’s $1 million milestone. “I was really blown away by the generosity of so many people I know – including ones I hadn’t spoken to in years – who stepped up to donate,” said Turnbull. “I’m amazed by the human spirit and how people can really come together to achieve something incredible.”