Some walk for a friend. Some walk in honor of a mother lost, or a daughter gone too soon. Some walk for themselves.
Whatever the reason, hundreds of area women and men will come together in late September and throughout October to participate in walks, runs and other events in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here, three South Jersey women share their reasons for walking this year—and for fighting back against the disease that has claimed so many lives.
When Mary Manion walks, she carries a list of names in her pocket.
“It’s a list of names of the friends I’ve lost,” says Manion, 54, of Medford. “I keep it with me. I carry them with me.”
Manion was 44 when she was first diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 2001. She underwent a lumpectomy, and a 2.4-centimeter tumor and two lymph nodes were removed. Her daughter was 11 years old at the time.
“It was a fast-growing cancer, but caught just in time,” Manion says. “So I felt immediately lucky.”
But Manion was far from cured. Four rounds of chemo, 34 radiation treatments and a five-year regimen of hormone treatments followed. The hormone treatments sent her body into menopause, and she needed a hysterectomy in 2003 due to the complications.
“I’m grateful they saved my life … but I felt like an 80-year-old woman lots of times,” Manion says. “You get home at night, and you just feel tired and old.”
Then, Manion discovered the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, an overnight relay event that includes a “survivors event” and a “fight back ceremony.” It was a chance to step back from her fight, celebrate her fortitude, and share that victory with others. Manion has volunteered with the relay ever since, running the blog MedfordRelay.blogspot.com.
Last year, Manion participated in her first Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk with the American Cancer Society. That walk, she says, was uplifting in a whole new way.
“It was far enough that it’s a challenge for me, but not so far that it’s overwhelming,” Manion says. “It’s just really positive.”
“They say, ‘Celebrate, remember, fight,’” Manion says. “And you get in the car, and you get there and you kind of have a little cry … but then you leave that in the car. You get out and you feel the transformation. You feel hope. It’s an incredible thing.”
Up until 1995, Loretta Mikulski considered herself the type of person who would never hear the word “cancer” from her doctor.
“I was a five-mile-a-day runner, I had none of the precursors, no family history or anything like that,” says Mikulski, of Berlin, who was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer in 1995. “It just came out of the blue. I did everything you’re supposed to do.”
Four and a half years after Mikulski began treatment, the cancer moved into her bones. Treatment began all over again in 2000.
“I have it in my ribs, pelvis, spine,” Mikulski says. “I’m still in daily treatment.”
Over the years, Mikulski became passionate about raising awareness, not just for breast cancer but also for the needs of all those women who find they are struggling to get by due to mounting health bills.
So, with just $50, Mikulski and a friend formed the South Jersey Breast Cancer Coalition (SJBCC) in 1997.
“It ran out of my house for five years,” Mikulski says. “Then we moved to our one-room office on the White Horse Pike. It’s been an interesting journey.”
On Sept. 24, SJBCC held its first-ever “Pink Porches for Breast Cancer” event, a 5K walk designed to coincide with Berlin’s annual fall festival. Six dedicated porches in town are decorated in pink for breast cancer awareness, and sponsors for each porch will offer everything from screening information to free massages and fitness information.
“I had seen this idea elsewhere, and I took it a step further, with each porch having a theme and a purpose,” Mikulski says. “The proceeds from the day go to our client assistance fund, helping women who can’t afford treatment. We pay the everyday bills of people going through their treatment: electric, childcare, groceries.”
Mikulski’s goal for the first pink porches event was 400 walkers. She hopes to have more people walking with her next year. “We’ve had a lot more requests [for assistance] this year. We have six women on the waiting list,” Mikulski says, “so we need this to be successful.”
For Mikulski, participating in these outreach programs is a way to focus all her feelings about her diagnosis into something productive.
“I don’t get depressed [about living with cancer],” Mikulski says, “I get angry. And that’s what fuels all of this. You have to have balance in your life. This is how I do it.”
For Joan Vallier, the only word that comes to mind when she walks is “hope.”
It was a little more than 20 years ago when Vallier, of Haddon Heights, decided to take in Denise Brahm, a local 18-year-old girl who came from a troubled home. Vallier had been coaching Brahm in softball, and she hoped, by offering Brahm a home, to provide her with better opportunities. Over the years, she came to look at her as another daughter.
She never expected Brahm, a pharmacist, to be diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32.
“There was a lump in her breast—and it grew, really fast,” Vallier recalls. “She said, ‘Mom, feel this.’ It was really big. I said, ‘How long did it take to get this big? You didn’t just find this.’ She said, ‘Three weeks.’”
It turned out to be the most aggressive breast cancer the doctor had ever seen, Vallier recalls. Brahm geared up to fight. There wasn’t any treatment she wouldn’t try, Vallier says. There were 23 surgeries. In between treatments, she gave birth to a son, Jacob, who was born eight weeks premature.
“It takes your hair. It takes your breath. It takes everything that makes a 32-year-old feel like a feminine woman,” Vallier says. “But she never once said, ‘Why me?’ She said, ‘Why not me?’ She would counsel other women who were recently diagnosed. She would talk to them for hours, no matter how tired she was.”
“She had a doctorate in pharmacy—she was brilliant,” Vallier says. “She was beautiful. She went through hell. She was a fighter, and she was determined to beat this.”
Brahm died Jan. 2, 2008, getting her wish of having one more Christmas with her young son. Vallier has been participating in the Making Strides walk ever since. She doesn’t belong to a group or a corporation. Instead, Vallier goes door to door, trying to raise money.
She hopes, she says, that she can help raise awareness and funding to help ease the pain cancer brings.
“She was a gift to us,” Vallier says. “All the pain, all the tears, all the heartache that I went through. If you were to ask me would I do it all again, taking her in again? The answer is yes.”
Where to Walk
Komen Central and South Jersey Race for the Cure (5K run, 4K walk, 1-mile walk or kids’ fun run), Oct. 2 at Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, (609) 896-1203, KomenCSNJ.org.
Barbara A. Colameco Walk to Wellness (5.5-miles walk), Oct. 8 at Kingsway High School, Swedesboro, (800) 769-8933, BacWalkToWellness.com
Susan G. Komen 3-Day For the Cure (60-mile walk), Oct. 14-16, departing from Willow Grove, Pa., (800) 996-3329, The3Day.org
American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk (three to five miles), Oct. 23 at Cooper River Park, Pennsauken, (800) 227-2345, MakingStrides.ACSEvents.org.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
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