Courage, humor, kindness for the long haul


    They got their act together and took it on the road, these women with a mission, and after a three-day hike that would send most pro athletes to the showers, they were still pumped up, if not exactly ready for more.

    I don’t think a single one of the 2,900 who started the Avon 3-Day Walk for Breast Cancer in Santa Barbara Friday morning failed to cross the finish line, although one did collapse from exhaustion at the end of the closing ceremonies. As the sun set over Zuma Beach Sunday, they streamed passed the packed grandstands, blistered feet and bandaged knees, hands held high waving to cheering friends and families.

    And scarcely a dry eye among them. New friends, old buddies, cancer survivors, sisters, daughters, aunts, nieces and even a few husbands, though this seemed to be more about female bonding.

    It was really about raising money for early detection and treatment in the name of those whose cancer was discovered too late, who fought the good fight but lost. Over and over, I heard, “I’m walking for my best friend who died.” “I’m walking for my mother who survived.” “I’m walking because no child should have to lose their mommy.” One man wore a shirt with a woman’s smiling face on it. It was printed, “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles.”

    Each walker had to raise a minimum of $1,700 in pledges for the privilege of earning those blisters, sleeping in teensy tents, showering in a kind of mobile assembly line and queuing up to eat in mess tents.

    This was not a race, not a competition of any kind, not even to collect the most in pledge money. When one walker was short the minimum donation, another, who had raised more, offered it to her so she could walk.

    “I’ve never been good at fund-raising. But I mailed a letter to a hundred friends and family with a picture of my lifelong friend, Staphanie, who I lost to breast cancer last year,” Judi Slapin said. “I brought in $9,500. The generosity and support of everyone overwhelmed me.”

    A breast cancer survivor from British Columbia, Jackie Ralph-Jamieson, said she learned one word, kindness. “They told us, ‘Be kind to everyone.’ I think that’s what I’ll remember most. To be kind.”

    The walkers were also told they were not to complain. Bleeding feet, strained muscles, wet tents were to be tolerated with good humor. And “No Whining.” Good advice. Whining is contagious, but so is humor. And so is courage. Both were abundant, as they were in all the women I’ve known who have fought breast cancer.

    My friend and colleague Linda Aarons retained her sense of humor through seven years of excruciating treatments. Decades earlier, my great aunt Nora, a nun who ran Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Kansas City, started losing body parts in middle age beginning with her breasts, which were, she said, “the most useless things on a nun, anyway.” Always a gutsy lady, Nora had been taken to task by some church members for going to notorious mobsters to finance the hospital’s new wing. “They have all the money, and I don’t care how they got it,” she said. “It’s better they give it to a worthy cause. We’re just giving the poor misguided mobsters a chance to save their souls.”

    Even for the lean and fit, the 3-Day was no stroll in the park, although, a breast cancer survivor who teaches aerobics at Malibu Fitness said after the first day, “It was a piece of cake.” Others, who had participated in breast cancer 5-K and 10-K walks and runs, said those were mere sprints by comparison. Walking 20 miles in one day is tough; doing it three days back to back takes it to a whole other level. Slapin and Rabbi Judith HaLevy said they wouldn’t make the walk again but probably would volunteer to assist next year.

    Sue Delmore started training in January and was feeling fit and ready when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I had raised all this money, $4,000, and then I started chemo and I couldn’t walk.” How’s that for irony? Her spirits are still high, she just doesn’t have enough strength to go the distance. Her beautiful, thick, blonde hair, gone. No matter. She says her daughter comes home and calls out, “Where’s Baldo?” Her biggest disappointment, she said, was that the event organizers wouldn’t permit a friend to walk in her place.