When I met Anna Cummings on the Susan G. Komen Twin Cities 3-Day this year, I noticed her lanyard first. It’s covered with 3-Day legacy pins, and I asked her how many times she had walked. She said this year’s Twin Cities 3-Day is her seventh year walking, which is remarkable in itself, but even more so when you learn that Anna is just 22 years old.
“I first crossed the finish line when I was 16.” (Her 16th birthday was actually on Day 3 of the Twin Cities event that year, 2009.) Anna’s mom Laurie had walked for years before that, ever since the first year that the 3-Day came to the Twin Cities. Laurie started a team with some neighbors, who all lived on Myrtle Drive, hence their team name: The Marvelous Myrtle Girls.
So the 3-Day was on Anna’s radar from a young age. She came out and cheered when her mom would walk, helped with fundraisers, took care of her younger sisters when Laurie would go out on training walks. Those sisters are 3-Day regulars too: Carley (age 18) is walking for the third year, and Lizzy will be old enough to walk next year.
Laurie, a mom of three, was diagnosed with breast cancer when Anna was in the fourth grade. “I knew what cancer was, but didn’t know much else, except that it was a bad thing. I remember sitting on the stairs when our mom told us. Carley asked if she was going to die. She said, ‘We all die some day, but I’m going to do everything I can to beat this.’ I just remember that she was so positive from the start. But I remember being scared. Everyone, even as kids, especially nowadays, knows what cancer is and knows that it’s not a good thing.
“Cancer really has been there for my entire life. Well, since 4th grade, so pretty much my entire life.”
For the Cummings family, cancer will be part of their identities forever. But there are ways for cancer to be part of a person’s or a family’s identity without letting it define the people.
So Laurie started walking. She took charge of that part of her identity, added “3-Day walker” to her definition, and that choice profoundly influenced her daughters, including Anna, who joined her as soon as she was old enough to and says her experience with the 3-Day has been “Amazing. I definitely have a 3-Day family. Even though there are different people every year, I end up seeing people I know every year.”
In 2013, Carley turned 16 and was finally old enough to walk too. Anna recalls, “So my mom, my sister and I got to walk that first year Carley walked. My mom had a hip replacement in 2009, and she slowed down a little bit after that. Before, she would walk every mile, no blisters. Amazing. But even after, she’d still do ten miles a day. So, the three of us walked that year, but then last year  was hard because that was the first year my mom couldn’t walk because of her health.”
But before she began with the next part of her story, I told Anna how I had heard about her and Carley. Earlier this year, I was collecting input from my fellow 3-Day staffers for a blog post about their favorite or most touching moments from the 2014 3-Day events. My colleague Molly told me about the Cummings girls in 2014, saying it was the most touching connection she has ever had on a 3-Day event. I was struck by the story, too.
The Twin Cities 3-Day takes place on the same weekend every year. “The winter before the 2014 3-Day, I had thought about possibly not doing it. It was going to be my 21st birthday, and I thought it was a good time to take a year off. But then I thought, it’s been a part of my life. What better way to celebrate my birthday than doing something that I love.” So she registered again for what would be 3-Day number six. She didn’t know yet that that event, and the 21st birthday she celebrated during the 3-Day weekend, would be one of the hardest years.
Laurie’s health started rapidly declining around June of 2014, even though before that, it seemed that she was doing fine. It was at that time that her doctor told her that she should stop treatment; it wasn’t working anymore and continuing chemotherapy would do more harm than good.
“We were hoping to be able to walk with our mom, but things went downhill pretty fast after her doctor told her that she couldn’t do treatment anymore. He actually said that it would probably get better before it got worse, but that just wasn’t the case. She just went downhill really fast.
“A couple days before the 3-Day, Carley and I were thinking about probably not walking because it was getting really bad. I remember we were sitting on our mom’s bed, and I asked her if she wanted us to walk or if she wanted us to be with her, and she said—very clearly, which she sometimes wasn’t at that point—she said really clearly that she wanted us to walk. I just remember tears flowing down her face.
“So we walked. We didn’t camp, we went home at night to be with her. My 21st birthday was on Saturday, and I saw my mom that night. My dad got me a cross necklace and my mom put it in her hand so when I got home, she opened her hand and it was there. That will forever be important to me.”
“We came back to walk on Day 3. My dad said that her breathing was changing, so we went home for lunch, just to be with her. And, I mean…I knew she wanted us to walk across that finish line. The 3-Day had been part of her life for so long and that was so important to her.” At this point, Anna and I are both choking back tears. “And so we came back after lunch and we crossed the finish line for her.
“And then we went home. I sat with her for a while and she seemed okay, so I was going to get in the shower. But then my dad said you better come back upstairs. So I put my dirty clothes back on. We sat around her bed. Her breathing was getting really heavy. And then she took her last breath right in front of all of us.
“So, she waited until we crossed that finish line. And we all got to be with her.” Amazingly, Anna smiles. “A lot of will power in that lady. She knew. She knew what we were doing and she knew that we were doing it for her.”
I said to Anna, “The 3-Day has been part of your life for so long, continuing to come back has never been a question for you. Was it harder coming back this year knowing that you’re walking in your mom’s memory and not in her honor?”
“Harder, but definitely not changing my mind. There’s no question about it. And I wouldn’t even say harder. Just very different.
“It’s really hard to tell people. Some people we only see once a year out here on the 3-Day and some of them didn’t know my mom had died. And I know a lot of people found out, and we’ve had overwhelming support from the 3-Day community afterwards. There are people who remember her. She actually spoke in camp her last year and a ton of people remembered her from that.
“She was in a lot of pain. She did all she could to fight. She fought for a hard twelve years. She was diagnosed six times within those twelve years. She survived a lot longer than they thought she would.”
I think I know what the obvious answer to my next question is, but I was curious about what Anna would say about it: Do you feel her out here?
“I do. I do. In a different way than I will always feel my mom with me, and even in a different way than last year. Last year was a huge ton of emotions just with her not being there walking with us, but this year, she’s just not here at all. But I do, I feel her in the community, I feel her when I’m walking alone. I know she’s there, and it’s weird and it’s humbling. It’s sad. It’s emotional.”
We see hundreds of people on every 3-Day event as extraordinary as Anna and her family. People who have endured pain that many of us can’t fathom. People who have celebrated small victories only then to be faced with indescribable losses. But people who also possess some of the strongest spirits of hope you could conceive. Even when these people, like Anna and her family, experience the worst chapters imaginable, they don’t give up hope. They don’t give up trying, and doing things that are difficult and uncomfortable, and fighting.