ALAMEDA -- Every four minutes, someone in the United States is diagnosed with blood cancer.
Acute leukemia, a particularly devastating hematologic cancer, starts in blood-forming tissue such as bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to enter the bloodstream. Fevers, fatigue and frequent infections are all symptoms of the disease, which claim the lives of more than 20,000 American men, women and children each year.
Since 1949, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has been working to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease and myeloma and improve the lives of those living with the diseases. One of the group's major efforts is Team in Training, an organization that trains individuals to run, walk, cycle, hike and swim to raise money to fund research for a cure.
Alamedan Ariana Mortazavi, 21, a marine biology senior at UC Davis, had known about Team in Training for years but had never seriously considered joining the effort.
Mortazavi's feelings changed when her cousin, also of Alameda, died of acute leukemia.
"He was always the life of the party," she said of the man she thought of as an uncle. "He was always telling jokes, lightening the mood."
He battled for several years, even receiving a bone-marrow transplant, before succumbing to the disease in January of this year. His illness and death had a profound effect on Mortazavi, who is still grappling with his absence.
The next time she heard about Team in Training on the radio, the Alameda High alumna paid attention. She joined a local team and began preparing for a triathlon, an athletic contest in which participants compete without stopping in three consecutive events.
A swimmer, snowboarder and intramural soccer player, Mortazavi was in good physical shape and confident about her abilities. But she had no triathlon experience and had never undertaken fundraising on the level required by the program. She immediately applied herself to two new goals: completing 15 weeks of triathlon training and raising $3,200 for the society.
At first, Mortazavi trained alone in Davis. Then, when classes ended, she returned to Alameda and trained with fellow team members in the Bay Area.
For more than three months, she trained six days a week, the level of daily practice time increasing as she approached the date of the triathlon.
When she wasn't training, Mortazavi was working equally hard to secure the funding she needed to participate. She convinced her employers at Alameda's Troy Restaurant to donate a day's profits to the cause. Peet's of Alameda parted with one pound of coffee per month for a year, the grand prize in a raffle Mortazavi held to reach her goal.
All other funding came from family and friends, some of whom had known her cousin. She also received donations from strangers with whom she had only one thing in common: loss of a loved one from blood cancer.
By the end of the fundraising period, she had raised 14 percent more than was required to participate in the Olympic-distance San Diego Classic Triathlon 2012 -- more than $3,600 in total.
On Sept. 8, Mortazavi got up at 3 a.m. As her parents looked on, she swam 1,500 meters, biked 40 kilometers, and ran 10 kilometers in honor of her cousin and thousands of people like him.
She hopes that her efforts will contribute to a future without cancer, one in which other families might be spared what she has experienced.
Although she's proud of her recent accomplishment, she realizes that the real challenge is learning to live without a person she loved and cannot replace.
"It's hard to believe he's gone," she said. "My whole life, he was just always there."
Mortavazi's fundraising page is http://pages.teamintraining.org/sf/sdtrcla12/amortazavi.