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Tell Me Your Story: Denhoff runs Marathon as tribute to cancer patients

April 22, 2012

NORTH KINGSTOWN – Erica Denhoff chose the hottest Boston Marathon in history to make her running debut – and lived to tell the tale.
While people all around her were falling by the wayside – even last year’s male and female winners dropped out – the pint-size former NKHS athlete kept going.
She finished in six hours, 16 minutes and four seconds.
“Over 1,000 were treated for medical conditions,” says Erica. “More than 100 went to the hospital. I stayed out of the medical tent, ran a smart race and was careful. I knew I was taking it nice and slow but it was really scary to see a lot of people going down and getting IVs on the sidewalk, receiving CPR, being taken away in ambulances. It was carnage at the finish line.”
In fact, medical experts had e-mailed inexperienced runner in advance warning them not to attempt this year’s marathon. Erica did it anyhow, walking much of the route. “Fans handed us ice and water and sprayed us with garden hoses. I had ice under my hat and sports bra to keep my core temperature down. I stopped for ice and cold sponges.”
She walked up Heartbreak Hill, the notorious stretch where dreams are dashed.
Her goals, she says, were to stay out of the medical tent and to earn her finisher’s medal.
And, of course, to raise as much money as possible for cancer research that results in more effective, less toxic treatment. She raced as part of a large team from Dana Farber Cancer Institute where innovative cancer treatments, not typically covered by grant research funding, are being developed.
“People are really dedicated to these innovative therapies. I want to be a part of this and raise funds and spread the word there are better options out there now.
Erica is motivated by the memory of a lifelong friend whom she lost to cancer and by the death of her grandfather – whom she never knew – to prostrate cancer.
“My grandfather [Dr. Eric Denhoff, founder of Meeting Street School] died at 69. There weren’t good treatment options.” She has tried to emulate his achievements through medical research and athletic prowess.
“He conducted groundbreaking research trials; he was a college athlete. I aspired to be like him, excelling in sports and academics.”
At five feet, half-an-inch, Erica took up the unlikely sport of hammer-throwing, setting a record at NKHS and going on to throw for the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. She says comedic icon Bill Cosby, a native of that city, once observed, “The hammer weighs more than you do.”
Now 25, she works full-time at Boston Children’s Hospital in cardiology research and is pursuing a master’s of public health in epidemiology at Boston University.
“When I was in college I conducted clinical research and presented a paper at a national conference,” she recalls. “It was a really great experience. Epidemiology is a great way to build on those skills.” At the children’s hospital, she manages clinical trials in preventive cardiology. Previous work has linked her concerns about kids’ heart issues and the historically harsh side effects of cancer treatment.
“I worked on a study of kids with congenital or acquired heart disease – the quality of life, how it is for them. Many of the kids who had cancer treatments when they were younger get cardiomyopathy later in life. One girl beat cancer but died after a heart transplant. Toxic [cancer] treatment led to heart failure and poor quality of life.”
She says the grueling experience of running the Boston Marathon reminds her of the children and adults diagnosed with cancer who often face long, arduous battles.
“The pain from my running pales in comparison to what they go through. I went into this as a tribute to them.”
Her parents, Joe Denhoff and Amy Abramson-Denhoff and her brother, Chase, were there to cheer her on and, later, take her to a victory dinner. “It was pretty amazing,” she says of the marathon. “I would love to do it again.”
Through pledges and donations, Erica raised $6,423.20 for her efforts on Monday; internationally, the Dana Farber has accumulated $2.8 million.
You can donate until Sept. 15 by going to the website Check out Erica’s inspirational blog at

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at

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