Marathons, inspiring others, and meeting Pink: terminally ill runner Diane Berberian doing death ‘my way’
Berberian, who was given a month to live over 15 months ago, continues to use her 'bonus time' to inspire others to live life to the fullest.
When Diane Berberian crossed the finish line of the Philadelphia Marathon on Nov. 21 in her “pink chariot,” thousands of people, friends and strangers alike, were chanting her name.
That’s what her friend Kathie Wilson pictures it will be like when Berberian crosses her final finish line.
“I was thinking about the other day, when [Diane] was saying she never heard her name so much as she did at the race — that’s what she’s going to have when she runs into heaven,” Wilson said. “There’s going to be people there chanting ‘Diane! Diane!’ when she crosses that finish line of life.”
It may seem morbid, but it’s a finish line Berberian has stared at every day since hearing the doctors say the words “there’s nothing more we can do.” She was diagnosed with cancer in 2016, and it spread to her bones in 2020, which is when they declared her diagnosis as terminal. In September 2020, she was told she had a month to live.
Fifteen months later, Berberian, 63, is still alive and strong in spirit, if not body. Every day of her “bonus time,” she is embodying the phrase “Live life to the fullest.”
When the doctors originally told Berberian to pull out her bucket list, she responded that she had already lived one. Berberian, who is visually impaired, has represented the United States as a runner and triathlete in competitions all over the world. As an athlete in her 50s and 60s, she became the fifth-best paratriathlete in the world despite competing against athletes in their 20s.
But after hearing she had a month to live, Berberian packed up her home in Tampa, Fla., and moved back to her birthplace, Philadelphia, to be with family and to decide what more she wanted to accomplish. Her family and friends stepped up to make sure she could check off as many bucket-list items as possible.
On Aug. 23, Berberian threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park in Boston, a city where she ran many marathons. Following that, she joked that Boston did something for her; would her hometown of Philadelphia do anything? A friend Berberian referred to as “a little old Italian lady who doesn’t like the spotlight” got on the case.
Her friend connected her with the city’s soccer team, and Berberian had the chance to meet the Union and chat with the players after practice Nov. 17.
The next day, she dropped the ceremonial puck at the Flyers game for the team’s Hockey Fights Cancer Night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite her many years in Tampa, Berberian said she had to root for the Flyers because she’s a “Philly girl, born and bred.” She wore the Flyers hat they gave her for the puck drop and then pulled a “hat trick.”
She replaced the Flyers beanie with an Archbishop Ryan hat, which she had shoved in the back of her pants. With a huge grin, she lifted her arms to the sky and the Wells Fargo Center erupted. Wilson, who was screaming herself from the suite the Flyers gave Berberian’s friends and family, couldn’t believe the way total strangers reacted to Berberian.
Those events weren’t just bucket-list items for Berberian. They also touched the people who encountered her.
Alejandro Bedoya, the Union’s captain, said he was told as he came out of practice who Berberian was, and “in a second” everything changed for him. When told about her terminal cancer and desire to still participate in marathons, his struggle with the nagging pain in one of his shins seemed so minimal.
“I mean, talk about mind-set, mentality, and strength,” Bedoya said. “It just inspires you. … My gosh, she’s an incredible human.”
The Flyers’ Oskar Lindblom is familiar with Berberian’s struggle, having gone through his own battle after being diagnosed with a form of bone cancer in 2019.
“[To] see her out there smiling, it’s just a good feeling because I know how it is, going through it,” Lindblom said.
Although it was too loud to converse, he tried to share some positive words with her as she dropped the puck. When he found out later about her terminal diagnosis, he was even more impressed with her and her energy.
When Berberian looks back at photos of herself from that game, she sees so much childlike joy that she barely recognizes herself. While her spirit may be brilliantly alive, her body isn’t. Berberian said she can feel herself dying, and she can see it when she looks in the mirror.
Her body gave out on her as she prepared for two events on her bucket list — the Boston Marathon and the Philly Marathon.
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That’s when her community stepped up. Without telling her, Wilson and a friend signed up for the Boston Marathon. Wilson does not consider herself a runner (although Berberian argues she is), but if Berberian couldn’t run, she wanted to do it for her.
When Philadelphia Marathon weekend arrived Nov. 21, 16 of Berberian’s friends and family gathered to make sure she could participate, even if she couldn’t be on her feet. Ainsley’s Angels provided a chair, which they call the “pink chariot,” and her friends and family took turns pushing her through both the half and full marathons.
Together, they helped Berberian cover the full city of Philadelphia one last time. As her friends pushed her, she got to point out places that were significant to her life.
“My friends were crying at a lot of times,” Berberian said. “I emotionally broke down because I was, you know, metaphorically and otherwise, I was leaving the city.”
But, as they went, Berberian felt she was leaving “her energy” in the streets of Philadelphia. And Philadelphia responded. By the second day, everyone was calling for Diane. Spectators, participants, and famous runners were coming up to meet her. A total stranger waited on a corner for her with flowers while another broke down, crying, just from being able to meet her.
Berberian said she feels that the community and the hugs of her loved ones have kept her alive.
Berberian’s network keeps growing, which helped make her last big bucket item possible. Berberian’s main interests revolve around sports, but she also really, really wanted to get on a Zoom call with Grammy-winning singer Pink. As more people heard about her wish, they tried to connect her, to the point that Berberian started to worry she was hitting “stalker level.”
Berberian has always felt a connection with Pink, from her style to her strength, but she also wanted to meet with Pink for Pink’s sake. She wanted to tell her that even once Pink is old and dying, she’ll still have the power to change people’s worlds.
Word finally got through to Pink, and the two met virtually on Nov. 27. They had a conversation, and Pink sang Queen’s “We Are the Champions” before they signed off with heart signs. The video went viral.
“Don’t give up,” Berberian said in closing. “Don’t stop doing what you’re doing. Go long for Diane.”
Berberian and her friends had hoped her story would go viral, not so she became famous but so she can share the important lesson she’s learned since her diagnosis. She wants it to be a movement, and she’s calling it “Go Long for Diane.”
The message is similar to the one she wanted to share with Pink. Berberian believes that everyone has a gift, and she wants to encourage everyone to push past their fear or their exhaustion to achieve their dreams. While Berberian has had the blessing of “bonus time,” most people don’t know when their last day is. She doesn’t want anyone to waste a single minute of the time they have.
People tell Berberian that she’s doing death right. She replies, “No, I’m just doing it my way.”
Berberian won’t lie and say there aren’t days filled with sadness. She has shared tears with many of her loved ones. But she’s also shared some of the best hugs of her life because no one knows when it will be their last one.
Berberian has found ways to find peace. There is satisfaction in her ability to make her own arrangements — she wants her loved ones to each get some of her ashes to take to where they see fit. There is a sense of fulfillment as she shares her lessons to everyone from athletes to singers to middle-school students.
And there is a sense of hope in knowing that one day, she’ll be the person pushing her loved ones as they run the marathon of life and cheering as they cross the finish line.
“I’m going to be the one when you feel like you can’t go any further,” Berberian said. “I have a feeling I’m going to be the one you’re going to sense with that little nudge on your back.”
Berberian knows that day is close and getting ever closer, but it’s not here yet. In the meantime, she’s going to keep sharing her message and enjoying every hug that’s offered.