Numerous surgeries haven’t stopped Rockville Centre native Dani Frisch Harkin, a Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, from running marathons around the country. Actually, running saved her life, she said.
After the 1987 South Side High School graduate received two heart stents this year, doctors told her she had suffered two “silent heart attacks” without realizing it.
“They had never seen a heart like mine,” Harkin said. “Because of my endurance training, I felt the pain every time, but I started breathing again, and I’d be like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ I thank God every day that I exercise, because it saved me.”
That’s why, as Harkin celebrated her 50th birthday on April 17, she is embarking on her largest fundraiser yet for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society under the campaign name Team Heart Strong. She was nominated for the organization’s Woman of the Year 2019, and her goal is to collect $275,000 in 10 weeks for LLS to claim the title. She is also training for her 14th New York City Marathon with Team in Training, known as TNT, a program that matches professional trainers and fundraisers with participants to help them prepare for marathons and raise funds for LLS.
Growing up in Rockville Centre, Harkin was athletic — she was captain of the cheerleading squad at South Side, participated in Red and Blue and was on the track, volleyball and softball teams — but she had never done long-distance running. With the help of TNT, she has now completed dozens of marathons and half Iron Man triathlons.
“I just wanted a new story for myself,” Harkin said. “I wanted to stop being the ‘cancer person.’ I wanted something happy, instead of something tragic and sad, so I changed my outlook, and it became something great.”
In 2000, Harkin was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She underwent six months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation. Within one year, she was cancer-free, but not without the treatment taking its toll.
Harkin has had several medical procedures since 2004, including this year’s two heart stents. All the while, she ran at every New York City Marathon since she began training and fundraising with TNT in 2005.
Her neck and spine had weakened from radiation, so she had neck surgery in the summer of 2004. The next year, she trained several months and ran her first marathon, which she called a large feat to achieve. “I knew I was unstoppable at that point,” she said. “I knew I could do it.”
Harkin also had her gallbladder and polyps in her vocal cords removed, all due to the chemotherapy and radiation she received in 2000 and 2001.
In 2010, her husband, Kevin Harkin, died of a heart attack at 41, shortly after the couple had married. At that point, Harkin said, she didn’t want people looking at her as the “widow,” either. She kept running.
In 2017, as she was training for her 12th New York City Marathon, she felt pain in her chest. She was taken from a checkup to emergency open-heart surgery, which resulted in a triple bypass that March. The procedure, which usually takes about eight hours, took 30. Seven months later, she ran the marathon as planned.
“She’s resilient and strong,” said Harkin’s mother, Roberta Frisch, who still lives in Rockville Centre. “We’re incredibly proud, and we’ve always been very positive about her challenges.”
After overcoming Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Harkin began volunteering at LLS’s First Connection program, where she speaks with patients and caregivers enduring similar situations. She also served as an “honored team member” for LLS, where she would tell her story to TNT groups to motivate them in their fundraising.
She still does both, but now she often finds herself on the other end, listening to people’s stories. They begin every practice with these “mission moments.” “We hear the story, and it reminds us why we’re raising money,” she said. “It truly makes a difference.”
Harkin added that the TNT group has built a strong community that isn’t always easy to find in Manhattan, where she now lives. “These are my friends and my community,” she said. “It’s truly a sense of family.”
Carline Czaja, one of 20 people working on Harkin’s Team Heart Strong campaign, helps with fundraising efforts for TNT. She met Harkin when she first joined the program.
“Dani is just one of those people you’re just so excited you got to meet in life,” Czaja said. “She has an amazing perspective, she never lost her sense of humor, and she is trying to make life better for everyone going through” blood cancer treatment.
In nearly 15 years of fundraising, Harkin has raised more than $50,000 for LLS, which the organization puts toward blood cancer research and grants for new treatment technology. As a saleswoman for Roche Diagnostics, a specialist in HPV, cervical cancer and prenatal testing, she also tries to raise awareness about the effects of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as women’s heart health.
Team Heart Strong is at the three-week mark of its fundraiser, which means there are seven weeks left to hit the target goal. It is a competition, so the team could not disclose how much the campaign has raised so far, but Czaja said they are off to “an amazing start.” The campaign team is holding events to raise money, and donors can contribute online on Harkin’s “Woman of the Year” fundraising page.
“I made it to 50, despite all those challenges,” Harkin said. “I raise money once a year, but never like this. This is the big one.”