The Creeper Trail Ride to End Cancer has raised $778,000 for cancer research in its first nine years, and organizers said this week they continue holding the event to honor its co-founder — their sister, Penny French Garrett.

Garrett died in late 2014 after yearslong battles with rare cancers. However, the event continues attracting about 500 riders and walkers to Damascus, Virginia, each July to celebrate her memory and raise funds and awareness by traversing the Virginia Creeper Trial. All proceeds are donated to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Garrett was treated.

“Penny was cancer-free when she passed away. She had some infections she couldn’t fight off, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that,” her sister, Olivia French, said in a phone interview.

After successfully beating uterine leiomyosarcoma, a rare soft-tissue cancer affecting four in a million people each year, Garrett was diagnosed in 2014 with myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of blood cancer caused by the chemotherapy used to treat her first cancer.

Garrett underwent stem-cell treatments at MD Anderson that left her with no evidence of disease.

“That’s why we keep having this event is because we are making a difference,” French said. “Treatment options for rare cancers have come a long way — not because they’re getting money from the government or companies but from fundraisers like ours.”

Teams have come from across this region, the Carolinas, Georgia and New York. People can form a team and participate by raising at least $500, but the event also accepts donations, sells sponsorships and does other fundraising.

The deadline for sponsors is July 1, but teams can form and just show up on July 27 with their $500 minimum donation.

This year’s event is scheduled for July 27 with a kickoff celebration including dinner, a concert and fireworks July 26 at the Old Mill Restaurant. Opening ceremonies, survivor recognition and the walk/run are set for Saturday morning.

French, who helped Garrett establish the event in 2010, continues the effort with her brother Patrick, Penny’s children, Peyton and Madison, family and friends.

“This event is indescribable with all the walkers in the 5K; the streets are full of people,” French said. “Anyone who is there who has cancer or has had cancer, it gives them hope, and it inspires them. That’s what drives me.”

More than 16.9 million Americans had a history of cancer in 2019, and that number that is expected to grow to 22 million in the next decade, according to the American Cancer Society.

Rare cancers, those that affect smaller numbers of people but still make up about 50% of all cancers, typically get fewer research dollars, meaning patients have fewer treatment options, French said.

“Raising money for rare cancer research is important to me,” French said. “We send the money to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston because it’s one of the top two cancer research hospitals in the world. Even though the money doesn’t stay local in Virginia, what they are doing out there in research benefits everyone — in Virginia and all over the world.”

Patrick French said people can support the cause in other ways, including buying banners, which remain on display throughout July and August in Damascus.

“Besides all the people who ride or walk in the event, we have many corporate sponsors every year, and we sell light-post banners in the town in honor or memory of someone that’s had cancer or passed away from cancer,” Patrick French said. “The first year, we barely had enough for the main street in Damascus, and now there are two banners on every pole, and they’re running out of streets to put them on. … That’s a good problem to have.”

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