Nine years ago this weekend I took the first steps on a journey that lasted five years and hundreds of miles. Nine years ago I took part in my first Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day.
As many of you know, I have had numerous health issues over the course of the past two or so years. What many of you don't know is that in February 1997 I was told some of the scariest words any woman can hear from a doctor - "I think I feel a lump." My doctor wasn't too concerned, but I was. I forced the issue and ended up in the office of one of Washington D.C.'s best breast surgeons, you know - the cancer kind.
The good news is that I did not have cancer. In fact, none of the lumps I had then or since then have been cancerous. The bad news is what I had to go through to get to the negative diagnosis. At 27 years old I learned quickly that a mammogram hurts like hell. (Guys, think of a cold metal vice grabbing your most sensitive parts, squishing them until they are almost flat then pulling and you get the general idea.) I also learned that 27 year old do indeed get breast cancer despite the argument my GP used to try to get me to calm down and not request a mammogram making me very glad I did ask. Actually, I think I begged.
Despite the pain of the first test, I am glad I had it if only to find out that I have lumpy breasts.
About a year after the diagnosis I was living in Los Angeles, working at Warner Bros. Online when a co-worker mentioned this crazy fund-raiser. Over 1800 people were going to walk 75-miles from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to raise both money and awareness for breast cancer. Between my experience and the fact that my grandmother was a survivor there was no way I could say no to the opportunity. Then again, I thought I would be walking with a friend. Needless to say, she backed out but I didn't.
I raised the $1800, walked at least 8 miles each day on the weekends and got myself as prepared as I could training alone. I had no idea what I was in for.
Over the course of the five years I was involved with the Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day I met thousands of women and men, each with their own story mostly of survival but occasionally of sorrow. While the stories of courage and strength from the women forced each footstep when I thought I couldn't go any further, it was the stories from the men that made me walk even harder. Even today I remember them, almost ten years later.
One story in particular still makes me pause and remember to make a mammogram appointment. As part of getting more than 2000 people from point A to point B we had many brave and wonderful traffic "cops" all on Harleys. If I hadn't loved the look of that particular bike before, I certainly would have after these walks. On my final California walk in 2002, the last one produced in part with Avon, there was this very rough looking Harley enthusiast covered in pink ribbons. When I say rough I mean there is NO WAY you would ever expect this guy to wear anything in the general neighborhood of pink. On day two I was waiting with him on a corner for a break in the traffic so he could go out and stop the cars for us when I asked him why he was doing the walk fully expecting him to say his biker club was asked to volunteer which is what I had heard for several years at this point. Instead I got tears. His wife of more than fifteen years died a few months before the walk from breast cancer and she asked him to help before she passed. I made sure to hug him and ask how he was doing at every of his traffic stops after that.
The walks were, and still are, filled with those stories. They are also filled with traditions we started nine years ago such as holding one of our shoes up at closing ceremonies and covering our clothes and shoes with the names of those we honor - donors, survivors and those who live on only in our memories. Those of us who have walked walk to make sure that one day no one will have to.
I have not been able to walk for a few years. I am not sure my legs would let me do 60 miles again at this point, but I would love to try at least one more time. Until I convince a doctor I can take each step this will have to do.
It is October. It is Breast Cancer Month. If you are a woman, please check yourself. If you a man, please remind the women in your life to check themselves but also check yourself as well. Very few men get breast cancer, but most who do don't catch it until too late. Breast Cancer is survivable, I know many brave souls who have lived to tell their tales and thrive.