New Year’s Eve 2003 was forgettable. January 2004, however, remains branded, framed, and highlighted.
Two weeks into January I felt a painful lump in my breast. Little did I know on Dec. 31, 2003 that if I was one in seven women lined-up I’d be awarded the pink ribbon.
Over 40,800 women died of breast cancer in 2004. Fortunately my diagnosis was DCIS: ductal carcinoma in situ—unlike my half-sister who recently died from metastatic breast cancer. Breast cancer also killed our great-grandmother.
So when I met Christel Chesney in 2008 and breast cancer came into our conversation, Christel asked, “Are you a survivor?” I answered yes, and her eyes lit up. Her Texas twang sweetened her voice and she asked, “Well, I’d like to add your name to my shirt.”
Christel wears her Susan G. Komen white T-shirt when she walks, walks, walks, to help fight breast cancer—a cancer that will strike about one in eight women in America this year.
Presently, embroidered in pink are 11 breast cancer survivors or in-treatment names. That’s just one side of the shirt. The other side exhibits 14 black-embroidered names. “These are my loved ones and good friends who cancer killed,” Christel explained. After a pause, she added, “I’ve got two more names to add in black.”
Christel now trains for her second three-day walk with Team Robin in San Diego this November.
Christel and I met when we signed up to volunteer as Friends of the Elephant Seal docents (Central Coast, California) at the same time.
One morning we took a failed hike—we both wore the wrong shoes and I tired quickly from an arimidex side effect.
We found a shady bench and waited for the rest of the hikers. Christel shared her enthusiasm. “I helped my friend redo her flower beds before her mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party. She told me about this amazing 80-year-old, Maija Grendze. Maija first walked the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure™, 20 miles each day, at age 77, then again at ages 78 and 79. At 80 she didn’t feel she could do that any longer, so I said that we should continue Maija’s legacy.
“Besides, it was a good way to honor my mother-in-law who died from breast cancer in 1992. I thought, how hard could this be if a 77-year-old could do it.”
Christel let out a hearty laugh. “I opened my mouth and inserted my foot! We had a year to get in shape for the walk—so no big deal. Well, it was maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Christel started training in February for her 60-mile walk scheduled for August 2008. By April 2008, she completed her first 10-mile walk. Trouble followed.
“When I hit 10 miles, my left foot started giving me problems. After a walk…I could not walk on it at all.” Her podiatrist diagnosed a bunion and Morton’s neuroma.
Bunion or not, Christel kept training with cortisone injections to end the pain.
By June’s end Christel logged 16.4 miles every other day for a month just prior to the August walk. “Those extra four miles I figured the adrenaline would get me through each day,” she said.
Christel recalled the first day of the 3-day walk, “I was overwhelmed and proud, but I was also surprised to see so many injuries. People in cars honked their horns. People in neighborhoods turned their water sprinklers on, even let women use their bathrooms. Complete strangers handed us popsicles and ice water.” The adrenalin Christel hoped for got her through her first 20 miles. At day-one’s end, they pitched their pink tents, shared stories and dreamed about conquering day-two.
Bladder infections on a walk like this are not abnormal. Just three-miles short of Christel’s second 20-mile round, friends rushed her to the nearest emergency room. Antibiotics did their job and Christel spent the night in her pink tent again.
“Never, not once, did the word quit ever pass through my noggin.”
But at this point, Christel said that her emotions were raw, her feet maxed out, and her sense of humor flew south. She said she would have finished the walk as a crawl and “…on my knees if need be.”
“The last two miles were horrific. This walk was kicking my butt. I couldn’t walk in a straight line and I’m not sure if I even knew what I was doing by then. I cried, prayed and tried to ignore a fever that returned. A couple who showed up to walk the final few miles, held my hands to keep me upright. They feared I’d step off of a curb and hurt myself.”
The threesome walked to the end together. And then Christel started dancing! “My walking buddies were shocked.”
Emotion got the best of her. “There are really no words to describe it other than it changed my life forever. For the first time in my life I felt I contributed something powerful to my sisterhood.”
And she did. Along with her teammate, Nancy Grendze, they raised $11,300.
When the Susan B. Komen fundraising efforts began, breast cancer research and treatment fell out of the stiff bra and into the future health of survivors like myself.
The $11,300 raised by Christel and Nancy has gone into research. “Every advance in breast cancer has been touched by a Komen grant,” said Susan B. Komen spokeswoman Emily Callahan.
In 2007, the organization refocused its research money to concentrate on more focused areas, such as finding biological signs that can help predict cancer before symptoms appear.
I now celebrate each New Year’s Eve as another year of cancer-free and cancer survival for me and for so many more women who have benefited from the efforts of people like Christel Chesney who literally walk the walk.
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