Nicholas Celenza was a fifth grader when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and told to get her affairs in order.
But Elaine Celenza was a strong woman who "wouldn't let go of life, or let cancer bring her down," he says. For five years, until her death in February at age 48, she helped patients with the same challenges she faced and raised money to help find a cure.
Her tenacity and selflessness deeply affected Nicholas, now a sophomore at Haddonfield Memorial High School, who spent weeks looking for a way to honor her. Finally, he presented his father, Anthony Celenza Jr., with an idea.
He would sell pink shoelaces to raise money for the 22d annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, set for Sunday, Mother's Day, in Philadelphia.
"I just wanted to make her proud," said Nicholas Celenza, 15. "I wanted to promote breast-cancer awareness and early detection so no one would have to go through what my family went through."
With help from Celenza's father; 23-year-old sister, Erica; and 19-year-old brother, Anthony 3d, nearly 1,500 pairs of laces have been sold since March, bringing in about $6,000. The laces, whose cost was donated by Chapman Auto Stores in Philadelphia, have been available at retail outlets such as the Haddonfield Running Co.
Nicholas Celenza and his siblings plan to walk with at least 50 members of "Elaine's Brigade" in the 5K portion of Sunday's event, which begins on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, crosses the Schuylkill, and concludes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their father, captain of the Joseph A. Ferko String Band, will lead fellow Mummers in serenading participants at the museum steps.
Between 35,000 and 40,000 people are expected to take part in the race, although the impact of Komen's cutting off, then reinstating, funding for Planned Parenthood in February during a controversy over the latter group's abortion services has made predictions difficult. The event is one of hundreds staged by the Komen organization and its affiliates internationally each year.
Anthony Celenza Jr., like his wife, was a Komen supporter long before his wife's diagnosis. His efforts for the organization became all the more meaningful when the disease affected her.
"I was at work when my wife called" in October 2006 with results of a breast screening, Celenza said. "She said it wasn't good news.
"The cancer was found during a typical mammogram," he said. "I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. You hope it's the wrong diagnosis."
The couple discussed the treatment and talked about "beating this thing, and keeping home as normal as possible."
Elaine Celenza, who worked from 2006 to 2010 as a secretary and administrator at Christ the King Regional School in Haddonfield, was diagnosed with the most advanced stage of breast cancer. At the time, her mother, also named Elaine, was battling the same enemy. Elaine Brown died in February 2007 and was the inspiration for the original "Elaine's Brigade," which first took part in the Race for the Cure in 2007.
"My year in fifth grade was very hard," Nicholas said, remembering his grandmother's death and his mother's struggle.
Every year, more than 200,000 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women, and about 40,000 women lose their lives to the disease.
Elaine Celenza — whose sister, cousin, and aunt also have had breast cancer — underwent chemotherapy and radiation to hold back the disease, which spread to her bones and brain. She received 13 kinds of chemo before exhausting available treatments and resorting to pain-management medications.
"She was coping with it," the elder Anthony Celenza said. "She took it in stride. Saying she had a million-dollar smile isn't enough to describe her smile."
At her school, the children made her scarves when she lost her hair and were excited when her locks grew back.
"People would say she looked great but didn't realize the pain she had on a daily basis," Anthony Celenza said. "When you're told to get your affairs in order, it's like a truck hitting you."
By the time she took part in last year's Race for the Cure, Elaine Celenza said she was "living on borrowed time." But as always, she tapped her feet to the Ferko String Band.
"I don't want the sorrow and the pity," she said.
Her death hit her family hard, Anthony Celenza said. "As much as you prepare for it, you can never prepare for it."
In February, more than 1,100 people came to her viewing and 950 turned out for the funeral.
"I was overwhelmed," Nicholas Celenza said. "The way she led her life was an example to everyone."
The teenager, a member of the track team at Haddonfield, began selling shoelaces to students and teachers during lunch, to members of the Ferko band, and to others in preparation for the race on Sunday.
"Our race is a way for everyone to feel empowered to help save the lives of their loved ones, neighbors, colleagues, hairdressers," said Elaine Grobman, chief executive officer of the Komen Philadelphia affiliate.
"With one in eight women diagnosed, and one woman dying of breast cancer every 69 seconds, pretty much everyone has been — or will be — touched by this disease and has some type of personal mission in the breast-cancer movement," she said. "This Mother's Day tradition unites all of us."
It certainly united the Celenzas, who have made the event a day to remember their loved ones and others who have fought the disease.
"Just seeing the survivors wearing the pink T-shirts, forging ahead, is inspirational," said Anthony Celenza, whose band plans to play "When You're Smiling," one of his wife's favorites.
For information about buying shoelaces, visit KomenPhiladelphia.org/LaceUp. For orders of five or more pairs, e-mail the quantity, name, address, and phone number to ElainesBrigade@comcast.net.