They were an army of women on a long march against an enemy that strikes without warning and, in most cases, at random.
They carried pictures and memories of mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and dear friends, all casualties of breast cancer.
“Now you’re seeing women as we really are when we’re among ourselves,” Diane Pershing, my companion and chaperone into this other-side-of-the-mirror world, told me after a long day of stepping along in a column of 2,909 women (by official count) last weekend. I was one of 102 men dispersed among them. We were all on the Avon 3-Day, 60-mile Breast Cancer Walk from Santa Barbara to Zuma Beach.
What I saw was a legion of women in all their truly beautiful unadorned plainness, without makeup, without pretensions. They were tiny women, big women, prancers, plodders and proud striders. They were all shapes and colors. Some as young as 17, others in their 50s or 60s and one who turned 80 over the weekend. They cheered each other and they cheered those along the side of the road who cheered them. They sang, they whooped, and, like all warriors, they pushed on through pain and exhaustion.
Their game faces at the starting line betrayed the fear I felt each day, not knowing if my right foot or my spirits would hold up. But their deeper fear-the force driving them on-was in knowing that each one of them was a potential breast cancer target. Many, in fact, were breast cancer survivors with jarring stories to tell.
Brenda Miller’s story is not typical, but no survivor’s story is, except for the fact that they are all exceptional.
Miller, 59, stands barely 5-feet tall, if that, in her sneakers. She’s an attorney for the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office. She’s quick to smile and her friends say she’s feisty and tenacious. I believe that.
Miller had gotten annual mammograms for years. Then came the lump, the biopsy and the bad news. That was in October 1998.
“It doesn’t give you time to be depressed because what you’ve got to start doing next-and because it’s cancer you’ve got to do it quickly-is find doctors that you want,” said Miller.
That done, she then made a very critical, even controversial decision. “I knew instantly that, no matter what it was, even if it’s a grain of sand, I wanted a mastectomy (removal of her breast).”
It was the surest way to rout the cancer. She could have opted for a lumpectomy (a small incision to remove cancerous tissue). But she’d had a friend who went for the much easier lumpectomy and died two years later. Miller later had her second breast removed as a preventive measure. Both have been reconstructed.
Six weeks after the diagnosis, “the surgery was great, it went fine,” said Miller. After two days she checked herself out of the hospital and two weeks later she went back to work.
“I couldn’t climb the stairs, could barely walk, but it’s like I’ve got to show everybody that I’m this superwoman.”
One year later, she did her first of three 60-mile Avon 3-day walks. “The big fear was I didn’t know if I could do it because I had never walked that much in my life,” recalled Miller of her odyssey. “But then, you turn around and there’s someone who has just completed chemo and she has no hair, and then someone who has had a recurrence and she just had surgery. The determination is unbelievable.”
The second year was the real test. A few weeks before the walk she stumbled and fell on her hands, shattering bones in both of her forearms and hands.
“I toyed with the idea of not walking,” said Miller. ‘I hadn’t trained enough and I had an extra 20 pounds in casts and pins that I was lugging on my hands.”
But she finished, despite pouring rain on the third and longest day. “Before I’d quit, I felt I’d have to crawl to the finish line because it’s part of the breast cancer mentality that you must do it. I don’t know if that makes any sense to anyone but a cancer survivor.”
This year, Brenda fell again on her hands during the walk. I helped her up; she dusted off her hands and found nothing broken. And we walked on. When it was over I counted five blisters on my right foot. But I’m not whining.
Miller and the rest of us raised $4.9 million for cancer treatment and research on this year’s walk.