Cronin faces off for breast cancer

MIDDLEBURY — A mother, an athlete, a role model and an inspiration, Middlebury’s Liz Cronin recently was presented with a Bonnie and John McCardell Citizen’s Award by Middlebury College for her outstanding service to the community as the founder and previous chairwoman of the Face Off Against Breast Cancer Hockey Tournament.
The tournament brings together women’s hockey teams from around the state to have fun and raise money for the support of cancer patients and their families. The 12th annual tournament this past January raised close to $60,000.
Cronin’s influence, however, stretches far beyond the bounds of Addison County, and her journey is one that must be told from the beginning.
Attending Norwich University, she was an impressive hall-of-fame athlete with a salient set of leadership skills — captain of the softball team for four years and captain of the hockey and basketball teams her senior year. She coached soccer, lacrosse and skiing for several years before finding her true passion as an educator, teaching physical education in West Rutland for 19 years and at Middlebury Union Middle School for the past five.
Having lived in Middlebury for more than 20 years, she and a group of women began a hockey team called the Middlebury Otters. In her second year, Cronin received news that would forever change her life and the lives of Vermont women battling  breast cancer.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said. “I went through nine cycles of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation.”
With a compassionate heart and the spirit of a fighter, Cronin took a selfless route to recovery. Rather than focusing on her problems, she looked at the financial obstacles facing cancer patients and how they could be hurdled.
“At that time … I was amazed at how much money the medication cost. I was amazed that people I was meeting didn’t have good health insurance — some had to pay out of pocket for treatment and there were some that chose not to have treatment at all because they couldn’t afford it.”
She explained how some families that she encountered were financially shattered by the medical bills.
“There were some patients who would lose their job because they had to go through such extensive treatment and then they would lose their health insurance and they couldn’t pay rent,” Cronin said. “That really hit me hard.”
Meanwhile, as she dealt with the challenges of her own cancer treatment and watched numerous patients struggle to afford it, she looked to the ice. She dreamed about hockey and wanted to play.
“I never thought that I’d step on the ice again,” she admitted. “At that time, in 1998, with breast cancer, people were telling me that I couldn’t lift weights. They were not recommending any physical therapy, just some tiny exercises. They told me I probably shouldn’t be playing hockey.”
But, she improved her mobility, built up her strength, put on her skates, picked up her stick and got back out there.
“It was amazing — the gift to be able to go out there and skate again,” she recalled.
Around that same time, the team began to consider the idea of putting on a hockey tournament in Middlebury.
“We were sitting crammed in the locker room and I had no hair on my head because I had gone through chemo,” said Cronin. “We had a discussion and decided if we’re going to have a tournament, why don’t we have it to benefit breast cancer. It came on my shoulders as to where to put the money.”
Thus the Face Off Against Breast Cancer Hockey Tournament was born.
From the beginning, Cronin decided to keep things local and focused. The money raised by that initial women’s hockey tournament was only for breast cancer patients in Vermont, and it has stayed that way from the start.
Since its inception in 1999, organizers say that the tournament has raised close to $200,000. All of that money now goes to breast cancer patients reaching out for support from the Cancer Patient Support Program (CPSP), which offers cancer patients mental and nutritional counseling as well as financial assistance for treatment.
The tournament has grown from four female teams competing to raise $2,000 in its first year to 12 teams in four divisions (including a co-ed family group), which raised almost $60,000 this year.
Although the money helps many needy cancer patients, the tournament also serves another purpose.
“It wasn’t just going to be about money,” said Cronin. “It was going to also be about creating breast cancer awareness. We had this arena with all of these women, so why not educate them?”
Every year the tournament brings in speakers that volunteer their time to discuss issues surrounding breast cancer such as what signs to look for, myths about the disease, the nutritional value of different foods, and where victims can find support.
Although she has spearheaded development of this tournament, Cronin admits that its success is due to a caring community and a wide range of helpful friends.
“The Middlebury community is so supportive. It’s an incredible place to live. I’m really honored (to win a McCardell Citizen’s Award),” said Cronin. “There are so many people who have helped with this tournament, so really I accept this award for all of them.”
Today, Cronin is going strong.
“I just turned 50 in February and someone said, ‘What’s it feel like to be 50 Liz?’ I said, ‘I thank God I’m 50.’ I had a 75 percent chance of survival. To me, everyday is a gift. I’m glad I’m 50 and I’m still here,” she said.
And, after a decade of running the tournament, she has stepped down as the chairwoman.
“It took two committee members to fill her shoes,” said current co-chairwoman LizaSacheli Lloyd, who took over with Cathy Chase in 2009.
“She was not only the inspiration behind the committee, but she chaired it for 10 years,” said  Sacheli Lloyd about Cronin. “She’s an amazingly no-nonsense kind of person. As a tournament chairperson, she was very realistic about what needed to get done and how we’re going to do it.”
Despite taking a step back from the tournament, Cronin is still very committed to its cause, but she’s ready to go forward in life.
“I did participate this year and I will participate every year,” she said. “Being a survivor, at some point, it’s OK to let go and move on and that’s where I am in my life.”
Learn more about the Face Off Against Breast Cancer Hockey Tournament at http://www.faceoffagainstbreastcancer.org.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]

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