Just as he's done every summer for the past decade, Gary Paul will participate - along with an estimated 5,000-plus other residents of the region - in the North Shore Cancer WALK on Sunday morning.
This year's walk will be unlike any of the previous years for Paul - a Danvers resident and sales manager at the Beverly branch of Salem Plumbing Supply - who lost his mother, Ellen, this past November after a six-year battle with breast cancer.
"It's going to be a tough one to say the least," Paul said.
Paul will walk the 10k course - from Salem Willows, through historic downtown Salem, to Salem State's O'Keefe Athletic Center, and back - with his wife, Tracy, daughter, Marisa, son, Max, and the support of about 50 direct and extended members of his "other" family.
It was when he first joined the Salem Plumbing team 10 years ago that Paul got involved with the WALK. The third-generation family company has been involved since the WALK's inception in 1991. Every summer, people of any association with the company come together to raise money and participate in the event aimed at ensuring quality care to cancer patients and their families on the North Shore.
"We try to get not only our employees involved, but our employee's families, our employee's children, and their friends," Paul said. "This year we'll have a large amount of kids coming to participate in the walk with us."
What Paul and his family went through over the past six years echoes that of so many of the participants. In it's 21 previous years, the WALK has raised more than $17 million for people affected by cancer. Last year, the second 5k Cancer RUN attracted more than 550 participants itself.
According to Meg Wright, the development coordinator at North Shore Medical Center, the WALK is on pace to match last year's participation, which raised more than $1 million. All of the funds stay on the North Shore, with a portion going to the inpatient oncology unit at Salem Hospital, and the rest to wellness campaigns at the North Shore Cancer Center.
"We have a lot of teams that come early and they set up their tents, and they come and do the walk, then they'll meet back at Salem Willows and barbecue and kind of hang out and make a big day of it," Wright said.
The festive feeling at the Willows is a contrast to the walk itself, which serves as a chilling reminder of how many people are affected by cancer, and how far medicine still has to go in the fight against it.
"When you come down Lafayette Street, and you see all the people as you approach the Salem Fire Department headquarters, it makes you think," Paul said. "It makes you think how many people are connected to this horrible disease."