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Running for a Reason: Rex Lee Run Celebrates 20 Years

Rex Lee Run Details

  • Saturday, March 7, 2015
  • 9 a.m.: 10K race begins
  • 9:15 a.m.: 5K race begins
  • Register: (sign up by Feb. 28 to take advantage of the regular registration rate)

When a friend or family member has cancer, it's often hard to know exactly the right thing to say or do in support. But for the last 20 years, the Rex Lee Run at BYU has been giving those affected by cancer a way to contribute to research and to give encouragement. 

Begun in 1996, to honor BYU President Rex E. Lee who died that year from cancer, the Rex Lee Run raises money for cancer research at BYU. This year, to celebrate the 20th anniversary, runners are invited to share their stories of why they are participating. 

Here are three stories to read (and watch) of people who will be running for a reason at this year's race on Saturday, March 7. 

A Husband Remembers 

When Derek Miller ran his first marathon October 2013, he ran to impress his then-girlfriend Sarah Kay. Now in his first year of marriage to Sarah Kay, he's running for her in a way he never imagined.

The two BYU students were married in May 2014, and immediately moved to New York City for internships. It was there that Sarah Kay's health rapidly decreased and she was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin's Lymphoma in September.

A few months later, doctors discovered that Sarah Kay had additionally been battling Crohn's disease simultaneously with the cancer. Her immune and digestive systems had been attacking her already feeble 87-pound body.

"After the diagnosis, people on the street looked pretty; they looked fit. And I walked past them thinking, 'They don't even know,'" Miller said. "I'm passing people and they don't know that I'm that guy whose wife has cancer."

Miller remembers a conversation he had with God early in the diagnosis process where he asked the questions: "What am I supposed to learn from this?" and "Why this? Why now?"

He then realized that while those questions were important, the only time he has with his wife was now and he needed to make the best of that time. He vowed to be best husband he could be, to serve his wife in things she couldn't do for herself, and to not let cancer define his perspective or his family.

"I remember praying saying, 'If the only reason for me marrying her is to be her escort through this life, then give me the courage and the strength to be able to give her one awesome life,'" Miller said. "And the rest is up to you, God. We will control everything that we can control, and I trust you that if she stays or if she goes, that it's about giving her the best that I can offer."

And that is exactly what the couple is doing.

"We are battling cancer. And that is just one small part of us," Miller said. "We are so much more than that. We are a family who loves art and science, a family that loves languages and cultures, a family that encourages good nutrition. We're a spiritual family who loves to see the good in the world, a family who will be cancer survivors."

Sarah Kay started her first chemotherapy treatment in January, and although the two have a long road ahead of them, they are active in telling their story, and inspiring others to join the cause.

"Cancer isn't anyone's favorite thing to do, but cancer patients don't have a choice," Miller said. "Anyone has the choice to participate in the Rex Lee Run. Anyone can put themselves through something uncomfortable to show support for those who can't choose comfort over discomfort."

A Survivor Remembers

Benjin Facer is a two-time cancer survivor who only wants give back.

"When someone has cancer and has a positive experience, it becomes something they want to share. And that's exactly what I'm doing," Facer said.

Facer was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma when he was six years old. After years of remission, the cancer returned in the summer of 2013, this time in his thyroid.

After going through the pain of battling cancer twice in a little more than two decades, Facer knows what it's like to feel alone, but he also knows the strength in feeling support from those around him.

Now Facer wants to help ease the battle with cancer for others, and give back to all those who eased his. Although he can't go through the treatments for them, he wants to do all he can to say, "I care about you."

"I understand a little bit what they are going through and what they need," Facer said. "It's an odd special bond you share with someone when you've both had cancer, but it's very special to me."

That special bond is why the BYU junior studying biophysics hopes to continue to medical school and eventually become a children's oncologist.

"Having cancer gave me an inside peek into medicine and a peek into what's possible with medicine," Facer said. "There are so many possibilities, and I want to be a part of them all because it's something I can personally relate to."

Facer is also involved in the cancer community by being on the service and community outreach board of BYU's Cancer Awareness Group, which focuses on serving people in the community battling cancer, educating the community on cancer and raising money for cancer research.

"Every person will be affected by cancer, and you're not going to like it but it will happen," Facer said. "The Rex Lee Run is a great was to advance cancer research and that may make a difference in your future or in the future of someone you love."

A Mother Remembers

Cameron Merrill was the kind of guy who was always asking, "Now what can I do for you?"

When he needed a certain grade in a high school chemistry class, he taught the teacher how to play the Charlie Brown theme on the piano. When he wanted to buy his BYU study-abroad classmates homemade blankets in Mexico, he worked for the salesmen for hours, being paid in blankets. And when he was hospitalized with testicular cancer, he played matchmaker between night shift and day shift staff.

Merrill was an innovator every moment of his two-year battle with aggressive testicular cancer, which eventually took his life April 2009, when he was a 26-year-old newlywed and BYU student. He always believed there was a solution or a positive outcome to every situation, even in his cancer.

"He wanted everyone to keep going with their own lives, and he didn?t want anyone to give up anything because of him," said Cameron's mother Lisa Merrill. "He would always say, 'I'm going to get better, I'm going to make it through this,' and was always looking toward the future."

Merrill was told he was in cancer remission the summer of 2008, but a few short months later in December he was told the cancer was back with a stage four diagnosis. Cameron's mother remembers telling him that if it ever came to a point where he was ready to go, that she would be fine with that. He died just a few days later.

"The thing that helps with the day-to-day is knowing that my relationship with my son didn't start at his birth and didn't end at his death," Lisa Merrill said. "The faith that I will see him again gets me through each day."

And now, Merrill's family is inspiring others to join the cause and support families battling cancer. They understand the challenging and unexpected battle, and they want to make the process as easy as possible to all currently going through it.

The Merrill family honors and remembers their son Cameron as much as they can by supporting events like the Rex Lee Run each year.

"The Rex Lee run is a way to celebrate him and make sure he's remembered," said Merrill. "We do whatever we can to give back and help others so they don't have to go through what our family went through with Cam."

Lisa Merrill is currently a nurse at Intermountain Health Care's central office in Salt Lake City. She stresses that early detection is the number one thing a person can do to increase the chance of surviving cancer. In addition to supporting cancer research and community outreach events, she hopes this race will help share the message that proper screenings and follow-up appointments are important at every age.

The Rex Lee Run Remembers

Over the last 20 years, the Rex Lee Run has raised over $400,000 to fund cancer research at BYU. A strong BYU tradition, the Rex Lee Run is sponsored by the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research and organized every year by the Cancer Awareness Group, a student club with interest in raising public awareness about cancer, assisting those who are dealing with cancer and raising money for cancer research. 

Proceeds from the Rex Lee Run will go to the BYU Simmons Center for Cancer Research to fund cancer research fellowships. The presenting supporter for this year's race is Sunrider; this support enables 100 percent of race fees to directly support research.

The cast of BYUtv's Studio C will emcee the event, and prizes are available to all who participate including a Blendtec blender, restaurant meal certificates, concert tickets and ski resort tickets.

The 10K run will begin at 9 a.m., and the 5K run will begin at 9:15 a.m. Runners can register online at until 10 p.m., on Friday, March 6 (but fees go up on March 1). Registration will also be open the morning of the race at the Outdoor Track, located just south of the LaVell Edwards Stadium, between 7 and 8:30 a.m. 

Writer: Jenna Randle

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