CRANFORD - Hundreds gathered for the inaugural Team ROAR 5K and 1-Mile Walk on Sunday at Duke Island Park in Bridgewater. It was held in memory of Donna M. Karlis, a former Cranford teacher and resident.

Karlis died after a brave and inspiring battle with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in September of 2017 at age 42. Team ROAR's goal is to raise awareness, education, and money for stage IV/metastatic breast cancer research, as well as resources for area residents living with MBC. 

Metastatic breast cancer is advanced breast cancer, or stage IV, and is defined by the spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to non-adjacent organs such as the lung, liver, bones, and brain. While it is incurable, receiving proper treatment can increase quality of life and longevity. 

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Karlis attended Saint Michael School in Cranford until fifth grade, Orange Avenue School until eighth grade, and graduated from Cranford High School in 1993. She attended Seton Hall University, where she graduated with honors and a Bachelor of Arts in education in 1997, followed by Kean University with a Master’s in education. Karlis was a teacher at Bloomingdale Avenue School and Orange Avenue School from 1998-2009. She taught second and fifth grades, and later became a sixth grade math teacher. Her maiden name is Mason (the M. initial in her name).

“Donna was a passionate teacher who was always firm in her beliefs. She nurtured her students, but expected a great deal,” said Garwood resident Maureen Scepkowski, Donna’s former colleague, and longtime friend. “Her high expectations benefited her students, while her compassion nurtured them to become strong, independent thinkers.”

Scepkowski and Karlis served as teaching partners at Orange Avenue School where they ate lunch together daily. From there, they grew as professionals and friends, sharing many of life’s major milestones.

“Donna helped me to see different perspectives and challenged me to be and do better. Only the best of people can do that,” added Scepkowski, who now is a teacher at Walnut Avenue School and Garwood Board of Education member.

Karlis moved to Bridgewater after she got married and was a devoted mom to two little girls and to her husband of 10 years. She was a loving daughter, sister, niece, cousin, and friend. She touched so many people with her kindness and generosity. 

Karlis was determined to live fully and did so with dignity and grace. She exemplified courage, strength, and a positive attitude. Karlis provided support, guidance, and hope to other women also fighting breast cancer. She worked to raise breast cancer awareness and specifically wanted to increase knowledge about MBC. Karlis wished for her family and friends to continue her fight to cure metastatic breast cancer and to provide more representation for those who live with it. 

“We know how overwhelmed a metastatic breast cancer patient feels when they receive this diagnosis,” said Michael Karlis, chairman of the Donna M. Karlis Memorial Fund and Donna’s husband. “We are here for them. This was our promise to Donna, and we will continue to fulfill that promise by fighting for them with the goal of ending this disease.”

Karlis' family and friends created Team ROAR in her honor after she was first diagnosed in 2013. They ran and walked to support her and to raise money for breast cancer awareness and early detection. The team logo and name is inspired by one of her fight songs, “Roar” by Katy Perry. 

Team ROAR 5K and 1-Mile Walk proceeds will be split between the Steeplechase Cancer Center at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Somerset and METAvivor Research and Support. 

Team ROAR’s donations will be made available to help patients with MBC at the Steeplechase Cancer Center, regardless of income. Team ROAR’s funding can include living expenses, transportation to the Steeplechase Cancer Center at RWJUH Somerset, and recovery items such as lymphedema sleeves, wigs, head scarves, and post mastectomy undergarments from the Sanofi US Wellness Boutique at the Steeplechase Cancer Center.

METAvivor is dedicated to providing support for women and men with metastatic breast cancer and funding research to transition MBC from a terminal illness to a controlled, chronic condition.

Team ROAR also displays a pink ribbon that is synonymous with breast cancer awareness, however, it added yellow because MBC is different than a regular breast cancer diagnosis. Many patients will recover from an early stage breast cancer diagnosis. MBC is incurable, but Team ROAR hopes to change that. 

More than 150,000 women are living with MBC in the United States, and 75 percent of them initially had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, according to a 2017 National Cancer Institute study. 

Follow the Donna M. Karlis Memorial Fund Facebook page for weekly updates at https://www.facebook.com/dmkmemorialfund/. Also, on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/dmk_memorial_fund/.

Donations can be made through the race Website: https://runsignup.com/Race/NJ/Bridgewater/TeamROAR5K or can be sent to the Donna M. Karlis Memorial Fund Team ROAR, P.O. Box 6214, Bridgewater, N.J. 08807. A tax identification number will be provided for all donations.

Story provided by ROSA CIRIANNI, Team ROAR