Last year, I barely made it through day one of the 39-mile AVON Walk for Breast Cancer. At Mile 18, I slathered my tired feet with some kind of skin product and by Mile 20, a rash had erupted all over my feet and shins. Soon, every step felt like fire and pins and needles. I only finished that day’s 27-mile walk thanks to the companionship of a teammate, who cheered me on every time I suggested that I board one of the AWBC buses; who slowed her own walk to meet my snail’s pace; and who, with me, was one of the last people to reach that day’s finish line. My feet were so swollen that I could not get my shoes on the next day, and so missed the final 13 miles of the trek. I was disappointed, but took consolation in knowing that I had raised about $5,000 for the benefit.
Not finishing was disappointing because I thought I had trained so well. Each morning before work I walked a mile, and every Saturday I walked miles and miles more, eventually building up to a 20-mile training walk that took my little group about six hours to complete one Saturday last April.
Training for a marathon walk is a pretty straightforward thing: You walk. You walk miles and miles every day, each week accumulating more miles, getting your legs and feet and body prepared for what is a difficult journey. You walk and prepare your mind for the mental and emotional obstacles you might encounter, for the boredom and for the endurance. In hindsight, I wish I’d done more cross-training, especially more weightlifting, which would have given me the upper body strength you don’t often think of as prerequisite for being able to walk. And yet when you are walking a long distance, you become keenly aware of your back and arms, of your shoulders and your abs. I neglected that part of the training, and wondered if its absence contributed to my succumbing to the pain in my feet.
In any case, various family members urged me not to walk again this year—they even suggested that they would sponsor me NOT to walk. They are more than happy to give money to the cause, but are perplexed by the role I feel I play in it. What’s the point, they wonder, to so much training and such a struggle? Well, I think, here’s the point as I sign up for my third year in the 2010 In It to End It AVON Walk in Washington, DC, May 1 and 2:
I feel so valuable. In the months to come, the AVON Foundation will send notices to encourage fundraising, and they’ll let walkers know just how many poor and older women will receive screening and diagnostic mammograms thanks to our walking. They’ll tell us about research at major academic centers, and about meals and social supports, all made possible thanks to our effort. Even though I know my usual life—working as a writer for a non-profit organization and mothering six children and adolescents—is full of value and importance, I seldom feel so necessary, and seldom get to see tangible, results of my efforts. With the AVON Walk, there’s the immediate gratification of knowing that the $100 dollars I raise today will improve someone’s health care tomorrow.
I like the community. The training walks bring together a dozen or so walkers from throughout the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area, and we get to know each other very well as put in our miles in and around Annapolis, Maryland. We trek through neighborhoods we would not ordinarily visit. We daydream about the houses we’d buy if only we were millionaires. We talk about our days and our children and our spouses and partners, about our work and what we’re making for dinner. In a world in which many of my connections occur only electronically, via email and Text, I really love the human connection the training walks afford. And on Event Day, when several thousand of us congregate at the starting line, I feel as though I am part of a larger, vibrant community, one full of stories and hope and possibility. I love the sight of women (and not a few men) decked out in pink regalia, everything from tiaras to bras, from t-shirts to tennis shoes. It is such a solid, strong organism, that mass of people moving through downtown Washington in the early morning hours.
I have friends who live with cancer, and some who have not survived that journey. I originally joined the Walk to show my support for my friend and godmother, whose breast cancer had recurred . I felt so helpless at her news, so unable to do anything that would mean much to her. Then I hit on the idea of walking, and soon I was receiving donations from many people in her circle of friends. We both found encouragement and excitement as the donor dollars increased, and as friends far and wide contributed to support us. That year, Peggy walked across the finish line with me, and the symbolism and happiness of that moment is something I will treasure always.
Research and treatment advances in breast cancer have informed treatments for other cancers, too, and when I walk, I remember a dear friend whose life was cut short by pancreatic cancer. This year, I’m thinking too of my father, whose bout with a rare cancer nearly killed him, but who now appears to be on a path to cancer-free recovery.
I am walking for the women and families I don’t know, too, the ones who go through the draining treatment protocols of radiation and chemotherapy and surgery, who endure each day with hope and confidence that they will recover; as one of my friends, a survivor, put it: The disease claimed me, but I did not claim it. For all the women laying claim to the future—and for my daughters and theirs, who are part of it—I walk. My 39-mile journey, which will feature all kinds of snacks and entertainment and cheering along the way, is short in comparison.