On a recent Saturday, the entire sports world watched as pro cyclist Lance Armstrong continued his victory lap over testicular cancer, launching his quest to win a third straight Tour de France.
The same day, a sunny, down-to-earth legal secretary named Maureen Phillips waged her own unheralded battle against the physical and emotional scars brought on by the disease.
As she left a Marin County parking lot--starting a 21-mile training session for an upcoming women’s breast cancer fund-raiser--there was no fanfare or fuss, only the quiet support of her fellow walkers.
But the story of this 60-year-old San Franciscan, who endured a prophylactic mastectomy in 1991, is no less extraordinary and shows that not only world-class athletes have the emotional stamina to become cancer survivors.
In 1991, after two of her sisters died of breast cancer within 36 hours, Maureen had her own breasts removed at age 49 in a preemptive effort to stave off the disease--even though she had not yet been diagnosed.
The decision may have saved her life. A biopsy of her breast tissue eventually showed signs of cancer. But even after her reconstructive breast surgery, Maureen for years felt the grip of the disease, which devastated her family and for a long time robbed her self-esteem.
Now the former 1960s flower child takes her new life in stride. “I felt a little strange right after the surgery,” she says. “But now I think I look fabulous. I love my breasts. They’re beautiful!”
But Maureen doesn’t just talk the talk; she also walks the walk.
This Friday through Sunday she’s joining 3,000 Bay Area women for the 60-mile Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day fund-raising walk between San Jose and San Francisco.
The Bay Area walk is among scores of annual fund-raisers promoting breast cancer awareness. Avon sponsors nine walks, including one in Southern California Oct. 19-21--a 60-mile jaunt between Santa Barbara and Malibu.
Between 1998 and 2000, the Avon walks raised $66 million--money for cancer research, along with free mammograms and checkups for medically underserved women--significantly raising the level of cancer awareness nationwide, organizers say.
In recent years, the number of treatment options for women with breast cancer has grown, and researchers are also concentrating on techniques for earlier detection and prevention.
Each event attracts an average of 3,000 participants, mostly women. Their ranks include cancer survivors such as Maureen, some of them fresh from energy-robbing bouts of chemotherapy.
But while the walks have become a part of America’s disease subculture, they remain no easy feat for women who endure the elements for three straight days in their fight against a killer disease.
On this morning I huff along with four women in an effort to learn more about their motivation. This weekend will be especially grueling--two walks totaling 37 miles.
My co-walkers are Tina Caratan, a wry, 48-year-old certified public accountant; Cyndi Sunderman, 33, who co-owns a software firm; Sybil Gurney, 44, a systems manager; and Maureen, our team leader who devised the winding route through Sausalito to the Golden Gate Bridge and back.
Like most Americans, all four know someone with breast cancer--friends, mothers, sisters--not all of whom survived.
At this point in their three-month training regimen they’re road-hardened veterans.
Tina now has the perfect hat to keep her neck from burning.
Sybil has survived a painful groin muscle pull but won’t ever forget those madcap Sonoma County women who wouldn’t stop long enough to let her find a bathroom: “You had to go by the side of the road.”
Our trek ranges over tarmac paths, freeway overpasses, public trails and busy suburban streets.
Some of the dozens of walkers sharing our route this day move at a blistering pace--others walk slowly, stopping for lunch, even to shop.
The sun hammering our heads, our group trades remedies for blisters, even stubborn ones between the toes--admitting how their now-chafed feet no longer look good in sandals. They rate restaurants and talk of good meals--Sybil even schools me in spotting public port-a-potties for emergency road stops.
The women talk about children, past relationships and insider information on how much weight they gained during pregnancies. They discuss such mysteries of life as where lost socks end up when they disappear in the dryer.
Some of the weight conscious among us admit to getting naked before hopping onto the scale just to lessen the shock--and Maureen even cops to taking her glasses off.
They also talk about cancer. At one rest stop, 54-year-old real estate agent Maris Corush tells of walking one day with a sturdy woman named Gail, who had just finished her chemotherapy for breast cancer and needed to wear a hat to keep her head from burning.
“After seeing that, how could I complain about my aches and pains?” she says. “I mean, who cares about blisters?”
Maureen also talks about how difficult it was to have her breasts removed when there were no visible signs of the disease.
“My doctor said, ‘You don’t have it, but you’re gonna get it.’ He said women like me who ignored his advice in the past are all dead today.”
She recalls the emptiness of waking from surgery.
“Later I showed my doctor a pre-cancer picture of me naked from the waist up, taken on a camping trip, and told him, ‘Make my new breasts just like these.’ He looked at the picture for a moment and said, ‘Wow, I want to go hiking with you someday.”’
By the first two miles, I feel my first blister. By eight miles, my feet are burning and raw. My fellow walkers take care of me.
After I foolishly leave my water behind, Tina offers me a full bottle, giving me slices of moleskin to cover the blisters and quiet the yelping dogs inside my shoes.
Cyndi offers me trail mix and sun block.
Maureen lifts my sagging spirits.
“I’m so happy,” she emotes at the halfway point. “Aren’t you happy? Have you ever been so happy you just want to scream?”
Sybil sighs. “I’ll be screaming happy when I see my car again.”
But Sybil has lost 30 pounds on her walks. Tina says the exercise makes her feel younger.
After eight hours, I’m just happy to finish my Marin County marathon.
And to have met the four women I now consider my heroes.