‘She fought like a barbarian’

October 12, 2023
• Needhamites honor a late resident by participating in an annual cancer fundraiser.

Tom Hartley isn’t the type to wear pink and dress like a medieval warrior, but his wife Monique had a special way of getting him out of his comfort zone.

Walking with the Pink Barbarians, a boisterous group of Needhamites who raise money for cancer research at the annual Jimmy Fund Walk, Hartley wields a comically large hammer, plastic sword and adorned headband, all for his partner of 21 years.

This year’s walk on Oct. 1 was different, as Monique couldn’t join them. After battling an aggressive form of breast cancer for four years, she passed away in May at 58 years old.

Coming together in Monique’s memory instilled the walk with renewed purpose for the Pink Barbarians. During their half marathon, her spirit guided them to the finish line, Hartley said.

“Through the course of four years, she fought like a barbarian. She was just tough as nails,” he said. “Being able to give a little back from fighting this for four years was super special.”

Since the Pink Barbarians were first formed nine years ago, they’ve raised more than $121,000, founder Doug Fox said. As of Oct. 12, the team has raised $24,799.07 with an end-of-month goal of $25,000. That money will benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where Monique and both Fox and his wife Laura received cancer treatment.

Before her own cancer battle, Monique supported the Pink Barbarians and their mission, Hartley said. A deeply creative person, she loved to paint and jumped at the chance to dress in silly costumes, he said. Monique was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer in 2019, prompting her husband to sign up for the walk.

Hartley decided at the last minute to join the walk again this fall, and Fox said they were thankful for it.

Tom Hartley smiles at his wife Monique during the 2020 Jimmy Fund Walk. (Courtesy Doug Fox)

“It was really special having Tommy there because Monique was very much on our minds during the walk,” Fox said. “She was so intent on being a part of everyone’s life, showing up, living every minute she could.”

After his own wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, Fox supported her in the best way he knew how: cladding himself in armor as a “masculine” counterpart to wearing pink. The Pink Barbarians were born.

In 2016, Fox himself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and while he now isn’t technically cancer-free, his body shows no signs of disease. Fox largely credits Dana-Farber for his and Laura’s health, as they received “less invasive care” and avoided additional surgeries and chemotherapy.

Zack Blackburn, director of the Jimmy Fund Walk, said the fundraiser is on track to reach a record $9 million this year alone. They’ve raised more than $175 million in the walk’s 35 years, he said.

The Pink Barbarians are an event staple, not only for their own money-raising efforts, but for their sheer presence, Blackburn said — along the route, “you can’t miss them.”

“You see the pride, they’re dressed up as these barbarians fighting cancer, just think about what that does internally to people,” Blackburn said. “I think it’s a really inspiring thing, and we’re so grateful for everything that they’ve done for us.”

The Jimmy Fund Walk allows the Pink Barbarians to channel their energies into a concrete cause, Fox said.

“When you’re fighting cancer, you can’t control much,” Fox said. “This gives you something that you can control.”

Tom Hartley, left, and Doug Fox, both of Needham, smile during the 2021 Jimmy Fund Walk. Fox founded the Pink Barbarians, a local group that raises money for cancer research, after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. (Courtesy Doug Fox)

Pink Barbarian Vanessa Morant said the walk is all about spreading positivity and making sure cancer patients don’t feel alone. She sees the fundraiser as an opportunity for participants to connect with others battling the disease and inspire hope in their own recovery journeys.

“Everyone looks at you as you’re marching down the road, dressed in all of our garb being loud and obnoxious and awesome,” Morant said. “For me this year,… it was humbling to be part of something so much bigger and seeing all these people who have had their own personal struggles and walking for other people and everybody understanding the reason why you’re doing it.”

The last two miles of the walk, the group blasted Boston-themed music, namely “Dirty Water” and “Sweet Caroline” — the walk concluded near Fenway Park, making the classic even more meaningful. The local anthems prompted other participants and passers-by to sing along the route, Pink Barbarian Joyce Jourdan said.

By spreading joy and cheering people on, the group carried on Monique’s character. After her passing, Jourdan recalls reading online about how someone met Monique in line at a TJ Maxx. The random encounter was indicative of Monique’s outgoing personality, she said.

“She talked to a complete stranger and became friends with them on Facebook,” Jourdan said. “That’s just who she was.”

Despite enduring multiple chemo programs, radiation, two brain surgeries and a mastectomy, Monique always “brightened up everyone’s day,” Hartley said, often bringing her inappropriate sense of humor with her. Monique was “wicked funny all the time,” her husband said.

“She lit that place up,” Hartley said of Monique at Dana-Farber. “She brought a lot of people out of their shell. That was her thing.”

The group recently shared their enthusiasm and mission “to smash cancer” for Channel 5’s Eyeopener’s Wake Up Call last week. Hartley took it as a sign — watching the station was Monique’s morning ritual, he said.

During the walk, Monique’s energy shined through, and Hartley said he felt he was making a difference in her memory.

“I feel privileged to be able to help out a little bit and get involved,” Hartley said. “My wife loved it.”

The Pink Barbarians, a group of Needham residents who raise money for cancer research, walk up Heartbreak Hill in Newton during the Jimmy Fund Walk on Oct. 1, 2023. They’ve raised close to $25,000 this year. (Courtesy Doug Fox)
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