Hundreds of people will hit the streets around the Tampa Bay Times Forum today, Feb. 9, to participate in the 2013 Breakthrough for Brain Tumors Tampa Run & Walk.
And front and center in the crowd will be a Riverview woman who knows all too well the devastation this disease can wreak.
Within a period of four years, Marianne Bondanza Bridges' mother and two brothers were diagnosed and lost their battle with glioblastoma, the deadliest type of brain tumor.
Now the registered nurse and healthcare consultant spends her spare time raising awareness of and funds to fight brain tumors.
Collecting $1,314, Bridges is the top fundraiser for Tampa's event, which, to date, has raised more than $30,000 for the American Brain Tumor Association. The funds will be used to support brain tumor research and provide services for those with a brain tumor diagnosis.
It's in memory of her mother and brothers that Bridges and her team of friends and family will participate in the 5K race and walk starting at 8 a.m.
Afterward, participants will gather on the Party Deck of the Forum to celebrate both the lives of those who are battling the disease as well as those who have lost the battle.
Bridges' mother and brothers were among 500 people a day who are diagnosed with a brain tumor,
Her 44-year-old brother, Tom Bondanza, was the first to be diagnosed.
"(Tom) hadn’t been feeling very well for a few months and had been suffering from headaches," said Bridges. "One Tuesday morning in early 1995, he woke up very sick and, when my sister-in-law went into the bedroom to try to figure out what was wrong, my brother had a hard time answering basic questions."
A few days later, doctors gave the family the devastating news: Tom had brain cancer.
"For more than a year, Tom lived in and out of the hospital and received round-the-clock care, not only from his medical team, but also from my sister-in-law, friends and family members," said Bridges.
Her other brother, Joey, often traveled to New York from Florida to visit Tom, spending weekends sitting outside on the deck with him, enjoying the sunshine and reminiscing about their childhood in Corona and Sound Beach, N.Y.
Despite rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, Tom died Nov. 22, 1996.
The family members were preparing for Tom's funeral when they received more heartbreaking news.
"In the months before Tommy’s death, Joey had begun to suffer from headaches and seizures," said Bridges.
At age 49, he was diagnosed with the same disease.
"To Tommy’s children, Joey had always been like a second father," said Bridges. "Now, he was sick, too. Joey was unable to attend Tommy’s funeral, and after we buried Tommy, the family’s focus shifted to Joey. He and his two children and wife needed us now."
Doctors compared the chance of two brothers being diagnosed with the same type of brain tumor as the same chance of two brothers choosing winning lottery numbers.
"Why couldn't it have been the lottery?" asked Bridges. "We all began to wonder how this could happen to the same family."
Joey died Oct. 3, 1997, a year after being diagnosed and just a week before his daughter, Jennifer's, wedding,
"At the wedding the following week, no one knew whether to congratulate Jennifer or grieve for her—our family did a bit of both," said Bridges.
The deaths of her two sons took their toll on Bridges' mother, whose husband died in 1993. When she began experiencing memory problems in September 1999, the family attributed it to dementia are early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Bridges said they never dreamed a third family member would be diagnosed with glioblastoma.
After a short battle, Bridges' mother died the day after Christmas, 1999, at the age of 77.
"This loss has not only affected me and the children left, but has altered our family forever," said Bridges.
In the face of this overwhelming adversity, Bridges and her family decided to take a stand and join the American Brain Tumor Association's efforts to fight the disease.
"Today, we are a family of sisters, brothers, sisters-in-law, cousins, nieces and nephews who rally to find a cure up and down the East Coast," said Bridges. "We have organized golf tournaments, dinners, fundraisers and walks in honor of my brothers and mother from Texas to New York to Florida."
When the ABTA initiated its first New York brain cancer walk in June 2011, Tommy’s New York-based family was among the first to participate.
Now the family is walking once again in Tampa.
In addition to raising awareness of brain tumors and funds for research, Bridges' family enrolled in a global research study of multiple tumors within family genetics, sponsored by the ABTA.
"The intent of the study is to find a common denominator and cure for this horrid disease," said Bridges.
These days, the memories of Bridges' mother and brothers live on in the stories the family tells at holiday gatherings and reunions.
But Bridges said she can't think of a more fitting tribute to them than to help find a cure for the disease that took their lives.
"While we can’t ever bring them back, we do our best to keep their memory alive by telling their stories, living by their mottos and fighting to find a cure," she said.