“She might not get a miracle, but she could be a miracle for someone else.”

Warning: this story may make you cry.

It will make you sad. It should make you angry. It should fill you with frustration and grief, as it did me when I met Lisa L. on the Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day, then sat down to speak with her at length.

Lisa and her friend Brittney walk as part of team “Sasha 26.” Sasha is Lisa’s daughter. 26 is how old she was when she was taken by breast cancer.

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Brittney (left) and Lisa (right), representing team Sasha 26

Hearing Lisa recount the particulars of Sasha’s breast cancer journey—diagnosed Stage III at 23 years old after months of needless run-around and delays (as is often the case because she was so young, Sasha’s lump was dismissed and an initial mammogram denied); a rapid spread of the disease to her lymph nodes and lungs; surgeries and multiple chemotherapies—it’s unmistakable how closely Lisa was involved in everything that happened during the three years between 2010 and 2013. She sounds like a medical journal, the way she details specifics about the different diagnoses, tests, medications and procedures, but it’s the passion and indignation in her voice that can only come from a mother, especially when the news was as bad as it could be.

“She went from a clean bill of health to, you have 4-12 months to live.” Sasha’s cancer had metastasized into a rare form that was extremely difficult to treat, and extremely painful for Sasha. “It’s devastating to think you’ve won this battle only to be knocked down again…” The pain was real for Lisa too, being a mother whose daughter was, in many ways, forsaken by much of the medical community and ultimately was taken too soon.

I wanted to know more. I wanted to learn what would bring a mother to an event like the 3-Day. As Lisa told me, “The 3-Day is a huge thing for the community itself, but I’m still grieving for my daughter, and to be totally honest, I don’t feel like celebrating breast cancer. My daughter’s not a survivor. I’m a mom who fought for my daughter to live, and it’s hard to be part of the whole excited part.”

It’s completely understandable. With two daughters of my own, I could not imagine the grief and agony of losing a child. But here Lisa is, moving forward, about to tackle the final 4 miles of the route on blistered feet.

She is quick to point out that “Walking wasn’t my idea.” Lisa and Brittney are both Air Force Reserve officers in Texas (Sasha was also enlisted in the Air Force). “My unit has been so supportive of me with my daughter going through breast cancer and passing away. My unit just rallied around me. It’s a big unit, there are 250 of us, but Brittany had heard of Sasha’s story, and when I returned to the unit after Sasha had passed, she came up to me and told me that she was going to walk in Sasha’s name.” Brittney smiles subtly and sits quietly as Lisa continues. “I asked her who she was going to walk with. I mean, you don’t walk 20 miles a day, times three, alone. So I asked her who she was walking with, and she said, ‘By myself,’ and I thought, I just can’t let her do that. She’s doing this for my daughter. I need to be with her, to do it also, to help carry my daughter’s name for 60 miles.”

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Lisa has her beautiful daughter’s image tattooed on her arm

So Lisa signed up. She and Brittney went quickly from being acquaintances to teammates, and got to training and fundraising. “We raised money through all kinds of ways—through our unit, through our families, churches, neighborhoods.”

Brittney had her own connections to breast cancer as well. “I have three breast cancer survivors in my family. I know not everyone is as fortunate. I have these three women in my life today, so I realize how blessed I am to have them, because they could just as easily not be here. I’m really grateful that they’re here. There are plenty out there who don’t have that opportunity. They don’t have that chance.”

Lisa and Brittney’s friendship, cemented by this shared experience, is evident. Brittney laughs, “Yeah, there’s no turning back now! We can’t just see each other after this and go, ‘Oh, we only walked 60 miles together, no biggie!’ There’s no going back after that.” Lisa adds, “I have a deep respect for Brittney. She was going to do this by herself. She was inspired by the women that survived, and inspired by a young woman that didn’t. That, I think, proves a lot about her character and her spirit. I respect her for doing all that.”

I asked Lisa what Sasha would have thought about her doing the 3-Day. “Sasha would’ve been right here with me, and not once would she have complained about her blisters,” she answered with a chuckle. “Sasha was pretty tough. She never complained. Never complained, never said a harsh word, and she smiled throughout the whole thing. People would ask her, ‘Sasha, how are you?’ and she would answer, ‘Very well, thank you. How are you?’ And I would think, you’re not well! But she immediately asked about them instead. She was a beautiful soul, and I’m very proud of her. It’s funny, because I used to try and make her into a ‘mini me,’ now I’m trying to be like her!” I think that’s really beautiful.

“I’m trying to be like my daughter now. Like I said, she fought this disease, and she asked the doctors not to give up on her. Dr. Santosh Kesari [a San Diego-based neuro-oncologist] never did. He never gave her a time limit. And I think that’s what helped. That’s why she lived for 19 months, instead of the 4-12 months the other doctors gave her. He never put a time stamp on her.” To have finally found doctors willing to take on Sasha’s aggressive case was a big step, even if it came late. “They tried some things that other doctors wouldn’t try, and they slowed down the cancer. And now they’re doing it for other patients. On tumor boards, they still talk about Sasha today. From all the procedures and the chemos they tried on her, they were able to extrapolate what happens to the body when they go through these procedures. What happens to the cancer.”

“Sasha surprised everyone. She amazed everyone. Every time she walked through the door, they were just amazed by this young woman. Her strength, her courage, her grace.”

I asked Lisa what she would take away from the 3-Day experience. “I will always cry for just me and my daughter, but from here, I take away the bigger community, the bigger aspect of what breast cancer does to other lives as well. Because for me, it’s just my daughter. But I know other people get cancer, I know that. It’s invasive. It knocks everybody for a loop. But yet, it just brings everybody together too. They stand up and say, ‘Let’s get on with this!’ There’s a bigger camaraderie here, and so much more. You’re able to honor people.

“I knew it was a fundraising event, but actually, it’s more than that. I think these women come for bonding moments, they come for support, they come because they don’t want their daughters to have breast cancer. There was a lady we met on the trail who was walking by herself. We asked her why she was walking, and she said, ‘I just wanted to.’ She couldn’t get anybody to commit to do it with her, but she did. She just did it! That’s pretty remarkable. You meet special people, because it takes someone special to do this.”

We’re interrupted by a woman who politely asked, “Excuse me, are you walkers?” Lisa and Brittney acknowledged that they were, and the woman thanked them for walking. She was visiting Dallas, and had no idea the 3-Day was in town. She was an 8-year survivor who happened to find herself in the same park as our Day 3 lunch stop. It was a brief, 20-second exchange, and when she walked away, Lisa looked at me and said, “It’s moments like that.”

Brittany, meanwhile, had been sitting quietly, listening to Lisa’s story with the attentiveness and respect of someone who hadn’t heard it many times already. I asked her what she would take away from the 3-Day. “The camaraderie. People who gave their time to come out and support you. Just little things. Handing you a bottle of water. We saw one house that just had a pink polo shirt hanging outside. Just little things like that, just saying hey, we know what you’re doing and we appreciate it. That camaraderie is amazing.”

I asked, “It may be too soon to think about this, but do you think you’ll do it again?” Lisa laughed again (a nice sound), and said “I think once my blisters are healed and I’ve forgotten the pain! We’ll definitely do it again. We will. And maybe we can get a bigger group together, because now we kind of know the ropes. I think with our experience, we might be able to recruit more people next year.” Brittney added, “It’s a challenge, it is. But it’s well worth it. Because we can. That’s the big thing. I’m still here to walk, so why not?”

Lisa went on, “I just admire every person that comes out here. Women and men of all ages. What is inspiring is that they know they’re going to hurt. They already know. They know it’s going to be rough and be a trial, but they’re going to do it anyway. They do it over and over again, they keep plugging away at it until it’s something that—until breast cancer isn’t a death sentence to some of us.”

I ended our conversation by expressing my gratitude to Lisa for sharing her story. I told her that I know that this has probably been a really difficult weekend for her in a lot of ways, and, I hope, a good one in a lot of other ways. Her willingness to share was so important, because I think a lot of people need to hear that the story doesn’t end as well for some.

But I told Lisa her story’s not over. She replied, “Sasha did a lot for the medical community. She did a lot for teaching her mom a few lessons, and I think she taught others. Sasha said to me that she might not get a miracle, but she could be a miracle for someone else.”

I think that’s pretty clear.

 

The Strength of Family on the Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day

The Susan G. Komen 3-Day® community is known as a warm, welcoming family, embracing new participants and nurturing relationships with vets and newbies alike. It’s also not uncommon for actual families to participate together, usually in honor or in memory of loved ones. At the Komen 3-Day in Dallas/Fort Worth this year, I had the pleasure to meet a couple of these families and hear about how the 3-Day® has impacted their lives.

Kristi B.’s family didn’t have a strong connection to breast cancer, but that all changed when her father was diagnosed with the disease in the early 2000s. “It was a real shock [when my dad was diagnosed]. We had never really experienced breast cancer. Both my grandmothers had had breast cancer, but I was so young, I wasn’t really involved in it. It was just a shock to find out our father had it.”

Sadly, Kristi’s dad passed away in 2005, and shortly after that, her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease had gotten too close too many times. “At that point, I started walking.”

The Dallas/Fort Worth walk this year is Kristi’s fifth walk (she’s also crewed and volunteered). She walks not only in memory of her dad and in honor of her sister who was diagnosed in 2006, but also for her other sister who battled breast cancer just last year.

This year’s event has another special importance to Kristi’s family: her 17-year-old son, Eli, is walking alongside her for the first time.

Eli was a member of the Dallas/Fort Worth Youth Corps for the past two years, and this year decided to walk it with his mom. “It’s a real bonding experience,” Kristi said. “I’ve been around him when he did the Youth Corps, and my older son crewed here a few years ago, so having them here and experience this with me, it brings us closer together.”

I asked Kristi what, after five years, still inspires her about the 3-Day. We smiled when Eli immediately pointed to himself. Kristi confirmed, “Every year I tell myself I’m not walking again, it’s just too much, but this year, he wanted to do it. So he’s why I’m here.”

Naturally, I wanted Eli’s perspective as well, about how walking was different from his time on Youth Corps. “I’ve experienced more, I’ve gotten to know the other walkers a lot better.” And of course, I needed the story behind his vibrant and frilly tutu. “It was my fundraiser for the 3-Day. We had a Facebook group set up called ‘Put Eli in a Tutu.’ We had over 900 followers. If I made the fundraising requirement, I’d have to wear a tutu all 3 days. And I made it.” I was quick to acknowledge that it is a fabulous tutu, and pointed out that Eli didn’t seem uncomfortable in it. He laughed, “It’s not too bad, it’s actually keeping me warm a little bit!”

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Kristi and Eli

 

Not long after talking with Kristi and Eli, I heard another remarkable example of how the 3-Day brings people together. Renee R., a Dallas-area local, has been walking in the 3-Day for six years, two cities each year (and three in 2013!). Renee has five sisters, who are spread out all over the country, and although she first got involved with the 3-Day as a way to honor her sister Robin—a stage IV survivor who lives in Las Vegas—it was her relationship with her youngest sister, Jill, that was profoundly affected because of the 3-Day last year.

Renee shared, “Jill lives in Chicago, and I was going to do the Chicago 3-Day last year.” She stops, choked up for a moment. “We hadn’t seen each other in forty years.”

Renee describes her family as “a blended family that didn’t stay blended.” But as she prepared to travel to Chicago last year, Renee came across Jill’s email address, hidden within a group message to the whole family. and sent her a message: “I wrote, ‘If I walk the 3-Day in Chicago, will you consider having lunch with me?’ And she said ‘no, I want more than that.’” So Renee and two of her other sisters—Linda who lives in Pennsylvania, and Robin from Las Vegas—met up with Jill in Chicago as well, and four of the six the sisters were reunited for the first time in decades.

I marveled at how, despite all living so far from each other, five of the sisters were together here in Dallas. Renee assured me, “Now they want to follow me wherever I go to walk the 3-Day. So the 3-Day really brought us together.” Robin was not able to make the trip out from Vegas, but the other five women insist that they’ll get all six of them together eventually. In the meantime, they celebrate and honor Robin, as well as the oldest sister, Diane, who was also diagnosed in February.

“The 3-Day brings people together. This is my pink family— ” Renee indicates her team, Angels for the Cure, who are sitting nearby—“We stay together during the off season, celebrate birthdays. But the 3-Day brought my actual family together too. If it wasn’t for the 3-Day, I wouldn’t have gone to Chicago,” Renee says, hugging Jill and filling that forty year absence as if no time had passed at all.

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Renee (center) and her sisters. Jill, her youngest sister whom she hadn’t seen in 40 years, is second from the left.

Pink Soles in Motion – A Real Heart of Service

Jackie B. from Coppell, TX, knows that her story is not all that different from so many Susan G. Komen 3-Day® participants’ stories. Her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2005. A few months after the diagnosis, Jackie heard a commercial on the radio for the Komen 3-Day, and something clicked. For Jackie, part of it was the inspiration she felt from seeing her mom’s strength through her treatments, and part of it was the sobering the realization that now, breast cancer was part of her history too. She called her sister and said, “We’re going to do the 3-Day® in honor of Mom.”

They registered and called their team Pink Soles in Motion. That first year, it was just Jackie and her sister, but flash forward 9 years, to the 2014 Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day, and you’ll see a Pink Soles in Motion team with nearly 100 team members—including walkers, crew members, even Youth Corps members. They are the second largest team on the Dallas/Fort Worth event. That’s what I call motion.

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Jackie (back row, second from right) and just a few of her Pink Soles in Motion teammates

“What’s cool is, every year, you get a few that stay, then you get this new group, then you get some more,” Jackie said. “It’s been a wonderful ride for 9 years, and we don’t see ourselves stopping anytime soon.”

The strength and leadership within the ranks of the Pink Soles in Motion is clear, to the point that Jackie was able to “retire” as captain a few years ago. “We’ve got such strong people on this team, so we switched stuff around,” she says with a smile, and adds, “My second year, I was the only training walk leader on the team. I did every training walk, even the ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays! This year, we must have had 10 training walk leaders.”

After nearly a decade of such active involvement in the 3-Day world, I asked Jackie if anything still surprises her when she comes out to event. “I think it’s always, every year, you go along throughout the year, and then when you come together as a group, and you come to the Opening Ceremony and you’re reminded, ‘Oh, this is why we do this. This is what we’re all about.’ You hear the stories from the Ceremony this morning, briefly, for a few seconds, and you’re reminded.”

It’s that reminder that brings so many people back to the 3-Day year after year: the reality that, though progress is being made, we’re not there yet. Jackie agrees. “Every year we hear of someone else who succumbs to breast cancer, and we say, ‘That’s why we’re still out here.’ And people who have been involved with our team, then all of a sudden, they’re a survivor.” Pink Soles In Motion has nearly a dozen survivors within its ranks, several of whom sat nearby while I talked to Jackie at the Day 1 lunch stop, proudly wearing their Survivor tattoos on their cheeks.

For as strong a presence as the Pink Soles are on the Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day, they’re far from exclusive. “One of our favorite things to do—because we’re a big team, so we don’t all walk together as a group—is meet new folks. We have met so many people just in the first ten miles today. We love it. Hearing their stories. Why are they here?” Jackie mentioned a particular fondness for meeting solo walkers and welcoming them to the team. She looks around and wonders how many of the current Pink Soles started out as single walkers who they happened to meet along the way.

We’re briefly interrupted as the Pink Soles around us erupt with enthusiastic “Here’s Amy! She made it!” Another Sole-mate, returning to the fold. She reaches down to give Jackie a hug. “Amy’s been doing this a long time too. For some of us, we only see each other this one time a year. Sometimes, those who live in close proximity get together. But others, like Amy, we see her just for the walk, and we connect, especially at camp in the evenings, catch up.” The Dallas/Fort Worth event is where most of the team comes home to reunite each year, though, in the true spirit of this amazing team, they’ve also sent smaller versions of the team to other 3-Day cities over the years.

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Jackie, the original Pink Sole in Motion

For those team members who are local to the DFW area, their impact and influence in the breast cancer cause extends throughout the year, not just for these 3 days. “The support we get from the community is amazing. We’re adopted by the Coppell Fire Department every October. Pink Soles In Motion, for about 6 years, have gotten a proclamation from the city. We have a real appreciation, being recognized like that. This year, the mayor of Coppell said, they see Pink Soles In Motion as the ambassador for the city in the fight against breast cancer.” Jackie is proud of the fact that, as a large team, Pink Soles In Motion is able to hold large fundraising events out in the community, raising tremendous awareness along with money.

Nine years is a long history. I asked Jackie what she loves about the 3-Day and her team. “It changes your life forever. You end up going through all kinds of things. You become a big family. The people on this team have a real heart of service. That’s what you see out here. We learn perseverance, and it carries over into our daily lives. It wasn’t until my mother was diagnosed, and it was right in my face, that I really understood how people become passionate about a cause.”

In the case of Jackie and her Pink Soles In Motion teammates, passionate feels like an understatement.