It's a chill morning, the light is thin, the air sweet and the crowd lively as 15,000 of us set off down a country lane lined with old stone walls and houses with Halloween ghosts in the front yard. Survivors wear pink T shirts; a team called Wendy's Warriors wears black ones with F*#! CANCER on the back. It's a beautiful day to walk together for a little while, just five miles, not so much really, except that in the time it takes to finish, 35 more women will learn they have breast cancer--an average of one every three minutes--and eight more will have died.
I'm walking with Team Sue Harmon in this year's American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaign in Purchase, N.Y., and we walk with purpose. Sue is the second biggest fund raiser in the country, locked in a fierce, friendly rivalry with Stacy Matseas of San Diego to see who can raise the most. Sue set her goal at $100,000 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her diagnosis. I didn't know her back then, when she was 32, a first-grade teacher with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old and a disease that came out of nowhere. The doctors' advice was clear and aggressive: a lumpectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy, then radiation, then five years of tamoxifen. Her ovaries came out because the tumors were estrogen-positive. And the minute she was able, she and her husband Dave and their girls began reaching out and fighting back.
Sue turned out to be a demon fund raiser. Friends designed her a website (Teamsueharmon.com) she gave speeches, did interviews. The world was her classroom. Everyone from kindergartners with birthday parties to high school girls marking sweet 16 asked that in place of presents, guests donate to Team Sue Harmon. This fall a 7-year-old handed over a zip-top bag with $51.87 from a summer lemonade stand. People know to give out Sue's number; she gets calls from friends of friends across the country and around the world, women who need someone to cry with or yell at, women whose mammogram "found something" and need to talk.
"What's the first thing you tell them?" I ask her before the walk. "Breathe," she says. It's easy to forget to do when your life has been knocked out from under you.
When she began her outreach, she says, "I thought, I'm one of the lucky ones; I have to be there for the next person." Well, now she's the next person all over again. She was on the school playground a few weeks ago when she got the call: That lump she had felt a few days before? Not good.
Even after 10 years without a recurrence, she knew better than to ask, Why me? But I couldn't help wondering. She did everything she was supposed to. She has a mental attitude so positive, you could sell shares in it and retire. She runs at least five miles several times a week and had regular tests and scans. This just feels all wrong.