Mira Bisesi is the spitting image of her mother—from her beautiful smile to her down-to-earth personality. Sadly, the 17-year-old shared only 10 weeks with her mother, Joan Bisesi, who passed away from a recurrence of head and neck cancer in 2001 at age 34. “You know that personality traits are passed on genetically when you see someone who never really got to know her mom turn out to be so much like her,” says Phil Bisesi, Mira’s father.
By all accounts of Joan’s tremendously giving spirit, the similarity to her mother bodes well for Mira. “She was a caring, unselfish person. And a lot of fun,” says Joan’s father, Ed Levy. Joan’s legacy of generosity lives on through the fund she and Phil started with the OSUCCC – James during her treatment.
Pregnant with Mira at the time, Joan had urged her family and friends to donate to research instead of sending flowers to her hospital room, saying, “I love flowers and cards, but I would rather be cured and be able to see the flowers at Mira’s wedding than to see them now.” This past summer, the Joan Bisesi Fund for Head and Neck Cancer Research reached $1 million—an incredible milestone that the family hopes the fund will reach many times over in the future.
A life full of promise, cut short
Joan’s cancer journey began with a trip to the dentist. She’d put off the appointment, fearing she would need to have her wisdom teeth removed. The dentist flagged a canker sore as suspicious and sent her to an oral surgeon for a biopsy. At age 29, she was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma.
Following a surgical procedure to remove a small portion of her tongue and some work with a speech pathologist, Joan’s life returned to normal. She went back to work as a corporate educator and met attorney Phil Bisesi through a mutual friend. The two hit it off right away and married in 1999, settling down in the Columbus suburb of Bexley. Their newlywed bliss was cut short when, in 2000, Joan learned her cancer had returned. David Schuller, MD, then the chair of the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at The Ohio State University, CEO of The James and Joan’s surgical oncologist, waited until Joan and Phil had returned from a dream trip to Italy to share the terrible news.
In the following months and year, Joan, her family and her tight-knit group of friends were quickly introduced to the devastation of head and neck cancer. Joan endured numerous procedures, including a surgery to place a part of her fibula in her jaw, and she never complained. “Head and neck cancer affects a person’s appearance, their ability to eat and to speak,” says Lee Levy, Joan’s mother. “It’s hard to think of what Joan went through—and the pain and discomfort connected to it.”
While undergoing treatment, Joan learned she was pregnant. She was overjoyed but faced a difficult pregnancy. Mira Sophia was born in September 2001, induced early so that Joan could undergo one final surgery to try to save her from the cancer that had spread to her brain. Joan passed away on Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday.
Pouring grief into action
Family and friends poured their grief into fundraising, quickly bolstering the fund Joan and Phil had started months before her death past the threshold required for starting an endowed fund with the OSUCCC – James. With endowments, the principal of the fund is invested and only the interest is spent, so the fund will continue to impact head and neck cancer research in perpetuity.
It’s a fitting tribute to the care Joan received at the OSUCCC – James. “She had a great relationship with Dr. Schuller,” recalls Phil. “He had such a passion for The James, and we wanted to be a part of that. All the nurses, the social workers, everyone at Ohio State was terrific—and years later, after Joan passed away, they were still showing up and donating to her fund.”
Indeed, Lee remembers Dr. Schuller speaking at the first fundraiser following her daughter’s passing. “There were probably 150 people there, and Mira was there in her little infant seat sitting right next to Dr. Schuller. I don’t think there were any dry eyes in the room. We raised $16,000 that evening.”
Joan’s legacy continues to inspire philanthropy—and the fundraising in her memory hasn’t slowed down. Through the years, a dedicated group of family and friends has put on galas, golf tournaments, Super Bowl parties, art shows and more to raise money for the fund, but it is the Columbus Donut Run that has become the signature fundraiser.
The 5K Donut Run started in 2014 with 350 runners, but it attracted more than 2,000 runners at the most recent Oct. 28 event in downtown Columbus’ Genoa Park. It’s a lot of work for volunteers to gather and package the thousands of donuts baked fresh by area bakers and distribute them during and after the race, but a partnership with Columbus Running Company has streamlined much of the logistical management of the popular event.
The event draws those who knew Joan personally and miss her—including a contingency of the OSUCCC – James faculty and staff who continue to honor her memory—as well as the Columbus running community. “Word has spread that it’s a fun event,” says Lee. “We have a DJ and dancing donuts, and runners get a donut hole at each mile and a pack of six donuts at the end. It’s a family-friendly event. There are serious runners but also people pushing their kids in strollers.”
Joan’s daughter Mira, a junior in high school, has become involved in the run, traveling to Ohio from her home in Florida to attend. She also led a jewelry fundraiser to benefit her mother’s fund—which reached a major milestone this past summer as it surpassed $1 million.
It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, particularly given that the bulk of support has come from modest donations. “From the beginning this fund has been made up of small donations from Joan’s friends, family, physicians, nurses, social workers and other Ohio State staff, as well as survivors of head and neck cancers and others who never knew Joan but were touched by her story,” says Phil. “I hope it keeps going and that soon we’re talking about the fund reaching $2 million."