Chernoff honors mother-in-law's cancer fight
'Walking for Wendy' program has raised more than $350,000 for awareness
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Wendy Keil was known for being a fighter. She battled cancer twice and, until her final days, was determined to find a way to help others conquer the disease. Her cause has been carried on through family members and friends now fighting in her honor.
Before passing away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 60 in September 2011, Keil helped inspire a team, "Walking For Wendy," that has been active in various events over the past two years. Fittingly, an image of Keil wearing boxing gloves appears on shirts they wear.
"Our entire family has just embraced this cause," Indians assistant general manager Mike Chernoff said. "We all feel this is the legacy she's left behind."
Keil was a mother of four, including Chernoff's wife, Sarah. And her story is just one among many.
Rare is the family that has not been affected by cancer in some way, making awareness and support critical in the constant battle faced by so many people. Major League Baseball and its clubs have done more than taken note by stepping up and teaming with Stand Up 2 Cancer to help raise funds to help support, treat and hopefully prevent the disease.
"It's really important," Sarah Chernoff said of MLB's increased involvement in cancer awareness. "And it's really amazing, because baseball touches so many people. It's a really good place to get the word out."
MLB stood up again for cancer at this week's Winter Meetings.
The Meetings include an MLB.com Auction to benefit SU2C, which MLB has supported since 2008 as founding sponsor. Public relations representatives from all 30 clubs were inspired to act based on individual club members impacted by the disease, and they jointly organized the auction.
Bidding closes at 10 p.m. ET on Thursday, with 80 baseball-related experiences ranging from private pitching and batting lessons with players to lunches with general managers to team bus rides and meet-and-greets with Hall of Fame players.
The Indians' part in the auction includes two packages. The first is a "meet and greet" with Indians manager Terry Francona that includes four tickets to a home game, a tour of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a chance to take batting practice on the field and to watch the game from a private booth in the press box. The second package is an "On the Road with Francona and the Indians" experience, which includes a clubhouse tour, four tickets to a road game (excluding Opening Day) and the opportunity to meet Francona and watch BP on the field. Airfare and other travel fees are not included.
The Indians are not only involved with SU2C, but have helped Keil's cause, too.
"Awareness and support are huge issues in fundraising and support for cancer, so MLB getting behind this initiative is tremendously helpful," said Mike Chernoff. "The Indians have done a similar thing. The Indians have been sponsors of Pancreatic Cancer Action Network walks."
After being diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer in December 2010, Keil decided there was no time for feeling sorry about the circumstances. Keil beat the breast cancer diagnosis she faced in '07, and she planned on doing everything in her power to beat this cancer, too. Unfortunately, Keil's cancer had spread to her liver, creating difficult odds for an already-daunting form of cancer.
"She was a fighter -- always," Mike Chernoff said
Prior to facing breast cancer, Keil had taken part in a half-dozen walks in support of others faced with the disease. She even did a walk while undergoing chemotherapy. It was in Keil's nature to want to help others -- her first job was at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland -- and that did not change after she was the one in need of support.
Her family discovered the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and PurpleStride walks, and Keil could not wait to get started.
"My mom was competitive," Sarah Chernoff said. "She wanted the biggest team. She wanted to make the biggest impact. She wanted to raise the most money."
Keil and her family took part in a three-day walk in April 2011, and that only pushed Wendy to want to do even more.
"It was, 'Let's go bigger. Let's get better. Raise more money,'" Sarah Chernoff said. "At that point, she knew honestly that this was not about her anymore. At the end, the suffering was so bad, she just didn't want anybody to go through this again. That was her motivation at that point. It was, 'We have to make a difference here.'
"She was looking up how much money she had raised, who had signed up for the walk, literally to her last day."
In November 2011, less than a month after Wendy lost her nine-month battle with pancreatic cancer, her family took part in a walk in New Jersey. More than 160 people joined the "Walking For Wendy" team and raised roughly $96,000 in that event. To date, the group -- walkingforwendy.org -- has raised more than $350,000 through more than 50 walks in more than 20 places around the United States.
The Indians have also sponsored "Purple at Progressive" days at their home ballpark to help raise awareness about pancreatic cancer.
"We just, as a family, wanted to continue doing what she would've done," said Sarah Chernoff, who has two children of her own now. "There's four of us [siblings] and our dad [Gordon]. We just kept going, and we're trying to figure out how we can we raise more, and spread more awareness."