Hey, Cancer, Take a Hike!

“Take a walk. Earn big money, up to 1.7 cents per step!” If I saw an ad making that claim, I certainly would find it hard to believe. But in the last few years I have learned that in the fight against breast cancer, small steps can indeed lead to substantial cash.

More than 20,000 people know the power of walking and understand that the meager per-step earnings add up to a healthy sum that helps treat women afflicted with breast cancer. Two thousand steps per mile, $34 per mile, 60 miles.

I did the math. I took the walk.

My buddy Pat joined me on a walk to save her life and the lives of thousands of others. The trek we were on, The Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk, included 21,000 walkers on a three-day, 60-mile course that ended in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Similar walks took place in eight other cities around the country. Each participant raised a minimum of $1,800 in sponsorships, and the net proceeds were used to support nonprofit breast health programs and breast cancer research.

This trek is just one of several nationwide walks in the fight against breast cancer. Others include the Susan B. Komen Foundation 3-Day Walk and the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, which has raised $400 million for breast cancer research since 1993. Indeed, annual walks and marathons raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fight a host of major diseases and conditions, from the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk to walks to support research on diabetes, Alzheimer’s, leukemia, asthma and lung disease, kidney disease, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome and many others.

Sponsorships and the adrenaline rush

Pat and I slowly drag our bone-tired bodies up an ungodly incline that stretches on and up, seemingly forever. We and 3,000 other walkers cover the first 34 miles chatting, laughing, and singing old television-show theme songs. After that, the group falls quiet, except for the sound of heavy breathing and soft footfalls, as we conserve our energy for “Hell Hill.”

As we climb, so does the mercury. Cheering residents treat us to a spray from their garden hoses. We briefly admire white picket fences adorned with pink ribbons, the worldwide symbol for breast cancer survivors. I duck off the sidewalk and turn back to face the snaking line of walkers following me. As I go through the motions of retying shoes, sipping water, applying sunscreen, stretching hamstrings, and adjusting sunglasses, I appear to be the role model for other walkers. Actually, these preparations are stall tactics to catch my breath and steel my nerves for the final ascent. Was it worth six months of training for this?

Any doubts are erased with a sideways glance at Pat, a breast-cancer survivor who has been through a much more grueling journey.

Pat and I eventually do conquer the hill, traipse another five miles, and arrive at our homes away from home for the night: blue, plastic, two-person tents at cold, foggy, Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Outside our tents the wind howls. Inside, condensation from the rain drips down the sides, but we’re warm and snug in our bags. My tent mate Jane grumbles about the snap-crackle-pop of my insulated space blanket that keeps me toasty, but keeps her awake all night. She nicknames me her “Rice Krispies Roomie.” We joke that Everest is our base camp, but also remind ourselves that spending even the most miserable, noisy, soggy night in a cramped tent is not nearly as difficult as enduring surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

During a lunch date five months earlier, I convinced Jane to join me on this journey. We were excited about training together and agreed to share a tent during the walk. “I want to do something meaningful as a statement about this disease and its impact on women, their families and friends,” Jane had said. Between us, we have five children ages 12 through 15. We fantasized that this would be a three-day weekend away from laundry, cooking, cleaning, homework, and Mom’s Taxi Service. We thought walking 60 miles and camping at Skyline would be far easier than our regular hectic lives. Little did we know.

In mid-March, four months before the big event, I thought I was going to have to drop out. In mile eight of a training walk, a sharp abdominal pain interrupted my stride. I wrote it off as a muscle cramp, and finished the remaining two miles. I couldn’t believe it was serious enough to prevent me from walking.

Thirty-six painful hours later, research from the Internet led me to self-diagnose appendicitis, and I drove myself to the emergency room. The doctor on call disagreed with me and declared it a hernia, which required a surgical consultation the next morning. Within two days I was in surgery to remove an appendix and repair a hernia. We were both right — and I had two incisions to use as excuses, if I wanted to quit. But, one day later, I was doing laps around the surgical floor, IVs in tow. Soon after that, I was shuffling around the block.

At my one-week checkup, I thrust my fund-raising letter at the surgeon: “You do understand I will walk 60 miles, four months from now?” I declared with certainty. He agreed to sponsor me, which was just the vote of confidence I needed. With each sponsorship check came the adrenaline rush: “Hey, I really am making a difference.” I looked at every check as if perhaps this was the one paying the salary of the overworked researcher who discovers the cure at midnight in her basement laboratory. No contribution was insignificant; no pledge too small. I told everyone, “I will love you the same whether it’s a $500 check or a crumpled $5 bill.”

Honoring our mothers

Why does a collective of strangers come together to do something this extreme? We walk to honor mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, cousins, friends, and strangers. We just want to “do good.” And the survivors walk because they can. Pat walked to prove to herself that she was strong again. “Once you’ve had cancer you feel like your body has betrayed you,” she says. “You don’t trust it. After all, I felt great and yet I had Stage Two breast cancer with positive nodes.”

Pat’s 21-year-old daughter, Anne, was one of the youngest walkers training for the trek.

“I want to do something with my mother, in honor of her strength and courage,” says Anne. “Last year the walk was a personal feat for my mom. I wanted her to have that wonderful experience for her own personal healing, but I want to walk with her every step of the way this year, as I will walk with her for the rest of our lives.”

For the event, Anne showed her support by working as a driver — one of many crew members and volunteers contributing to the event’s success. The crew’s sole purpose is to have fun while ensuring that walkers are fed, watered, and loved.

Costumes are part of the fun: Pajama-clad crew members load gear onto trucks. The pit-stop team dances in grass hula skirts while doling out Gatorade and snacks. Cowboys and drag queens patrol in sweep vans, rescuing injured or staggering walkers. The kitchen staff rises at 4:00 am to prepare huge pots of oatmeal. Safety and security folks keep campsites and walking routes safe. And the route-marking crew posts signs so walkers can navigate their way. At the end of each weary day, volunteer medical students, chiropractors and massage therapists carefully work the kinks out of walkers’ backs and feet.

The most distinguished volunteer to date is Kris, the “Butterfly Guy,” who rides along on his bicycle, dressed in purple-sequined spandex, full-size wings, helmet antennae, and sparkly nail polish. Kris crewed all seven walks this year from California to New York, perched on the very same bicycle that carried him through five AIDS Rides that summer. His job, along with the crew member known as “The Caboose,” was to keep an eye on the very last of the walkers.

How did a butterfly wind up on the crew?

“I wanted to share the incredible spirit that I had experienced when doing the AIDS Rides,” says Kris, who lives in New York. His butterfly persona is symbolic of rebirth — an appropriate symbol for those who view the walk as a journey of metamorphosis. Kris’ fulfillment, he explains, comes from “knowing that we are making it possible for so many amazing people to accomplish the incredible.”

“Everything hurts except my eyelashes”

Despite the crew’s boundless enthusiasm and energy-reviving antics, by day three we walkers are desperate for something to distract us from the next 20 steps, and the next 20 after that. Someone reworks the lyrics to a Sound of Music standard, and we belt out our new theme song as it passes up and down the ranks:

Climb every mountain

Stretch every hour

Pee at every pit stop

Until you reach the shower.

Pop all your blisters

Ice both your knees

Spray us with your misters

And your hoses, please.

Thank the crew for dinner

We slept on the ground

Everest was our base camp

Fog and cold abound.

We raised lots of money

It was hard for sure

But we’ll keep on walking

Until we find a cure.

We sing this refrain until our throats are sore, while street-side crowds applaud our resolve. The last verse always brings forth a tear or two, but then we laugh and cheer and start over again.

We are plodding slowly but surely toward Golden Gate Park, and Jane says she desperately needs a little party music right about now, anything but “that song” again. Amazingly, we turn the corner to the sound of Loggins & Messina’s Best of Friends blaring from my sister Sharon’s car, festooned with pink balloons dancing in the wind. Sharon is swept up in a flurry of hugs and shrieks of delight. The woman who started off as my personal cheerleader — merely writing a check for the event — decided she wanted “to join the journey, not as a walker but as a volunteer” for subsequent events. She has become the official cheerleader for the entire group, showing up in her black convertible at just the right moment with music blaring and horn honking. I’m proud she is here as part of this family.

As we near our final destination a fellow walker sums up our collective attitude at that very moment: “I’m feeling great; everything hurts except my eyelashes.”

Heads nod silently in agreement. We’re all thinking it, but we’re too tired to comment. Many are visibly in pain, and the pace is noticeably slower than our start just 60 hours and 60 miles earlier. Every walker has blisters somewhere; knee braces and Ace bandages have become fashion statements. But we bring home more from this experience than just blisters, shin splints, and aching muscles. We have come together with a shared commitment to be part of something bigger than any one of us. Anne describes it as “three days of the world as it should be.”

For Pat, it’s all about renewed confidence and self-esteem: “I set a goal, achieved my goal, and proved to myself that I could challenge my body physically and survive again. A special community is formed during the three days and I hope I have been able to take the spirit of the event to heart and live my life differently.”

The walk is not an experience that ends when the walking stops; it is a critical juncture in our lives. Jane says there’s life before The Walk, and life after The Walk. “The lessons I learned,” she says “continue to enrich my spirit daily.”

I have to agree. This journey provides a pivotal point for each of us. Mine comes at the end: greeted by a giant outburst of love and admiration, I imagine the entire crowd to be cheering only for me. I bask in the spotlight for just a few seconds, then gladly relinquish it to the survivor who’s staggering in just steps behind me. Despite agony and exhaustion I stand on my feet for another hour to cheer subsequent arrivals. I’m not the only one doing so. We may walk in one at a time, but we all finish together. Before we assemble for our victory march into the Closing Ceremonies, Jane turns to me and says, “Now I see why you walked for a second year.”

Surrounded by such a miraculous celebration of faith and courage, I am helpless to resist as my feet carry me to the “3-Peat Tent” to register for the next walk.

© HealthDay