Most teenaged girls ask for clothing or accessories on their sixteenth birthdays. But Emma Merritt had a more selfless sweet-16 wish: To give back to the fight against breast cancer. Rather than accept gifts on her 16th birthday, the Lenox, Mass., teenager rallied her friends and family to donate to the Pan-Mass Challenge, an annual bike ride across the state of Massachusetts that raises money for lifesaving cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
“Breast cancer is a terrible disease that touches so many lives. I want to do everything I can to help find a cure,” Emma explains. “Every cent counts.”
Breast cancer is a disease that hits close to home for Emma. Last January, Emma’s mother, Suzanne, a personal trainer at Lenox Fitness Center and Spa, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. “It was a rough time,” Emma reflects. “Right around the time when my mother was diagnosed, we were coping with the loss of my grandma.”
For several months, Emma watched her mother go through treatment and ultimately prevail over the cancer. As a result of the experience, Emma gained a more nuanced perspective on life. “Throughout it all, my mom was such a positive person. It was really inspiring,” Emma says. “Seeing her with no hair…she handled it so well. It made me realize that appearance isn’t all that important. I stopped caring as much about how I looked.”
So when Emma’s 16th birthday rolled around, she eschewed shiny presents in favor of giving back to a great cause.
“I thought, ‘Instead of getting a bunch of presents I don’t need, I can make a difference,’” Emma says. “I wanted to do something in my mother’s honor.”
Through her fundraising efforts, Emma raised more than $850 to benefit the Pan-Mass Challenge, which channels 100 percent of every rider-raised dollar toward breast cancer research. Suzanne is participating in the Pan-Mass Challenge this coming August, and Emma says she plans to cheer her mother on from the sidelines. “I’ll be there, rooting for her,” Emma says.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Emma has made fitness an integral part of everyday life. An accomplished equestrian, she is at the stables seven days a week, in addition to regularly frequenting her mother’s fitness classes. “As I’ve grown into a young woman, I’ve realized the importance of staying fit and eating right,” Emma says. “It’s fun, and it’s something my mom and I can do together.”