Philly-area woman who honors husband's memory with efforts for cancer patients to be honored at All-Star Game

Posted: July 13, 2010

TEN YEARS AGO or so, Marci Schankweiler was living a different life. She had a career as a tax attorney and was in the early years of her marriage to a young man named Peter Bossow. They had attended their high school prom together, gone to La Salle University and had looked forward to years of happiness when Peter was diagnosed at age 29 with a rare form of testicular cancer.

For just over a year, Peter waged a courageous battle with the disease, a period during which he underwent surgery and chemotherapy. The ordeal was so incapacitating that when friends held a "beef and beer" to raise funds on his behalf, Peter told Marci that they should just use the money to get away.

They did.

They went to the Caribbean for 17 days and rediscovered something that had been overlooked as the cancer became a reality in their young lives: each other.

"We came to the realization on our trip that while cancer can destroy you physically, it can never destroy the love you have for each other," Schankweiler said. "And that is something you carry with you."

To honor the legacy of her husband, Schankweiler founded an organization called "Crossing the Finish Line," which has provided more than 800 cancer patients and more than 3,000 caregivers with all-expense-paid respite vacations. Given her contributions to society, Major League Baseball, in conjunction with People magazine, has selected her as one of 30 "All Stars Among Us," an annual campaign designed to recognize "individuals who are serving their communities in extraordinary ways."

The North Wales woman will be honored this evening before the 81st All-Star Game in Anaheim, Calif.

"I am just so excited to be a part of this," said Schankweiler, who was selected by a fan vote from a pool of three finalists to represent the Phillies. "What I hope is that this brings us some attention that allows us to expand our program."

Schankweiler explained that "Crossing the Finish Line" comes down to "people helping strangers." Along with a variety of fundraisers that occur each year - including a fashion show, a gala and so on - the organization also receives help from people with second homes in vacation destinations such as the Jersey Shore, Hilton Head and elsewhere. "Crossing the Finish Line" also had a house in Florida in proximity to Disney World, which has proven to be a favorite spot for the patients with whom she works. Vacations are up to 7 days with travel, lodging and expenses of $100 or so included.

Schankweiler gets 90 to 130 applicants per year.

Ninety or so end up going on vacations. "Crossing the Finish Line" refers to them as "sailors."

"We work with the area cancer centers - such as Fox Chase, the University of Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Medical Center," said Schankweiler, who has remarried and has children ages 5 and 7. "We try to get them out within 120 days of receiving their application so they can do this before their health deteriorates. But we do have some guidelines we follow."

And they are?

Only cancer patients from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware are considered for the program. And only cancer patients between the ages of 24 and 50 are eligible.

"When we started out we were nationwide," said Schankweiler, who draws a small salary from the Blue Bell-based nonprofit. "But I quickly realized that I was going to go broke, so we found ourselves in a position of having to say no. I hope one day I will never have to say no to anyone again."

Schankweiler said the patients and their caregivers have found the vacations to be therapeutic. From a physical standpoint, she said that there is a "recuperative aspect to it," if only in that there is "something soothing about water . . . and sunlight on your skin.

"But there is also a component of just being away from home," she added. "In the case of Peter, his [chemotherapy] protocol left him very debilitated. And this was a chance to get away from that for a period of time and reconnect on an even deeper level."

Peter died 7 months after the trip, which took them to Nevis Island in the West Indies, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and - in an act of spontaneity - San Juan, Puerto Rico. While she said she was prepared for it, she added that you are "very rarely [prepared] the moment a loved one takes their last breath."

Within a few weeks of Peter's death at age 30, Marci quit her job as an attorney and began "Crossing the Finish Line," which she came to look upon as her true calling. While it is not as lucrative as her law career, Schankweiler says "you cannot put a price tag on bringing joy into the lives of people."

"William Penn had a wonderful quote that said something like, 'I shall never pass this way again . . . ' so you should do what you can for others while you can," Schankweiler said. "When I place my head on the pillow at the end of the day, I think about that and wonder: 'Did I do my best to make the world a better place?' " *

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