Flying the Flags of Hope

Today is Flag Day in the United States, and while we all should honor the Stars and Stripes in our hearts, here at the 3-Day, we have some flags of our own that carry very special meaning too.

At our Opening and Closing Ceremonies and in camp, we are surrounded by flags and banners with inspirational words and phrases, giving us motivation, encouragement and hope. One of the most powerful moments of each Closing Ceremony is when we raise the final flag over a sea of triumphant walkers, crew members and survivors, signifying our commitment to a world without breast cancer.12031392_10156039901120392_5626771338758218186_o 13268374_10156909268860392_6896089530611072979_o

We also raise a very special flag in camp on the first two nights of each 3-Day event. This flag is carried into camp, amidst incredible fanfare, by the last walker to arrive each day.

It’s a beautiful tradition on the 3-Day. Instead of celebrating the first walker to make it across the finish line like most other races do, we instead ignite everyone already in camp to come out and cheer in the last walker. With their arrival, our 3-Day family is complete for another night.

So to tie in with Flag Day, we gathered some thoughts from a few of our last walkers from the 2015 events, sharing what that experience and that special flag meant to them.

Kathryn Labbe, who lives in Mesa, AZ, was the last walker (along with her teammates) on Day 1 of the Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day last year. Kathryn has participated in the 3-Day every year since 2006 (except 2014), and will be walking this year in the Twin Cities. When asked how that Day 1 was for her last year, she said, “My day was long, hot and exhausting, but fun. It was great fun being last walkers.  We were so happy to have made it to camp. We didn’t care if we were last.” Kathryn reminds us, “It’s a walk, not a race.”

Kathryn (far right) and teammates

Kathryn (far right) and teammates

At the 2015 Atlanta 3-Day, Julie Hipple, a five-time walker and a stage IV breast cancer survivor, was our inspirational camp speaker on Friday night, sharing her experience with metastatic disease and Komen’s impact on her treatment. On Saturday, Julie continued to inspire her fellow Atlanta 3-Dayers by raising the last walker flag at the end of Day 2. She describes that day as “Awesome, exhausting, memorable. My feet were sore from kicking cancer’s butt all day!” For someone who has had such an emotional and personal connection with breast cancer, the experience of walking into camp and raising the flag was, as Julie put it, “Amazing! Being a stage IV survivor, every step is an accomplishment. Walking into camp was like going home…to my 3-Day family!” Julie will be walking this year in San Diego for the first time. She also shared this very important message: “I always support the 3-Day event specifically because 75% [of net proceeds raised] goes to support research, which is literally keeping me alive. The treatment I’m on now is a new drug that is a result of Komen research dollars at work!”

Julie (middle)

Julie (middle)

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On Day 3, walkers end at the Participant Finish Area before heading into Closing as one big group, but we still announce and celebrate the arrival of the last walkers. At the Philadelphia 3-Day last year, the last walker on Day 3 was none other than Aubrey Cushing, our very own Seattle 3-Day coach. Philly was her 8th 3-Day (she’ll be walking there again this year for #9), and she says this about her condition as she neared the end of her 60 miles last year: “It was so hard. My feet were blistered and bleeding. I finally decided to take off my shoes and walk barefoot the last five miles into closing.” Aubrey told me about what continued to push her through to the end: “I loved the Philadelphia community, so that made it much easier to endure the mileage. Besides that, I had a great teammate that walked almost every step of the way with me. Towards the end of the day, the three of us on my team made sure we held hands and crossed the finish line together. My husband, two sisters-in-law, brother-in-law, nieces and nephew were all there, plus all of the crew and other walkers. It was the most magnificent moment ever. I was walking for a friend of the family who was going through a difficult battle with breast cancer. All weekend long when it got tough to walk, I kept thinking, “Vanessa Strong, Vanessa Strong, Vanessa Strong.” Vanessa is a thriving survivor today and I am so inspired by her strength when things got tough.”

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Aubrey (center), hand in hand with her teammates.

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Whether you’re the first walker to finish, the last walker, or one of the thousands somewhere in between, every step you take is bringing about tremendous impact and making a difference. And whether you raise the flag or cheer for someone else who does, every one of us can share in celebrating the small victory of being one day closer to ending breast cancer.

Memory of a Mother: Mary Beth & Nicole

How would you describe your mother in just one word? If Mary Beth Nardoni had to be described in just one word, it would be kind. “She was a Special Ed teacher, and she had a heart of absolute gold. She started a Brownie troop for Special Ed students, because nobody else had the time to put it together. She got all of the uniforms donated, because most of the parents couldn’t afford them. At Christmas time, she made sure others had before we did. She would give you the shirt off her back,” said her daughter, Nicole.

It was 1998 when Mary Beth found a lump in her breast. “My mom said to me, ‘Cole, I feel something. And the crazy part is, I know it’s cancer.’” Because she didn’t have health insurance, Mary Beth couldn’t go to the doctor until several months later, where it was confirmed that her hunch was right: Mary Beth had breast cancer.

A deeply private person, Mary Beth didn’t want to concern herself with numbers, stages, or statistics. By the time she received treatment and had surgery to remove the tumor and her lymph nodes, the cancer had spread to a stage four. Yet Mary Beth refused to let her cancer get her down. “It’s just cancer, it doesn’t matter,” she would say, continually battling the disease with her head held high. Mary Beth battled for years, going in and out of remission.

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Mary Beth, throughout the years. Photos courtesy of Nicole Hercules

When Nicole was getting ready to leave for a long awaited vacation in Cancun, she heard that her mother wasn’t doing well after a procedure and considered cancelling her trip. When Mary Beth got wind of this, she quickly checked herself out of the hospital, told Nicole she was fine, and sent Nicole on her trip. As soon as Nicole was out of the country, Mary Beth checked herself back in to the hospital. She refused to let her illness affect her daughter’s vacation, later saying, “Don’t worry about me. It’s just cancer, and I didn’t want you to miss your trip.”

In March of 2004, Mary Beth fell down in a parking lot and broke her arm. She had been told she was in remission, but didn’t continue receiving scans as she didn’t have health insurance. When she broke her arm, she had bone scans and it was discovered that the cancer was back. Nicole flew to Oklahoma on April 1, and that’s when she learned her mother was dying. “On April 19 at 7:30 pm, I told the doctors to administer the morphine. On April 20, she passed away and I was there to hold her hand. I told her that I loved her. She gave me the greatest gift that day – because she was there to see me take my first breath, and I was there to see her last.”

It took Nicole a few years to heal, and she participated in her first Komen event, the Chicago Race for the Cure, in 2009. In 2010, she did her first 3-Day walk in Chicago. In 2011, she walked the 3-Day in Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth, and then in 2013, Nicole’s dad passed away of lung cancer. The tragic loss of both of her parents prompted Nicole to walk all seven 3-Day events in 2014, and she was invited to speak at the Opening Ceremony about how cancer has personally affected her family.

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Nicole speaks at Opening Ceremony in a 2014 3-Day

Nicole’s sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in January, 2015. Her sister was HER2 positive, and is now in remission. Her sister will now be tested for the BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 gene, and then Nicole can be tested, as well. (Insurance stipulations sometimes require positive test results from an immediate family member before the expensive test is covered.) Despite still waiting for the BRCA gene test, Nicole took preventative measures. “I became a previvor with a prophylactic double mastectomy on June 1st 2015. We lost an aunt to Ovarian cancer, and with my family, it was just too much.”

“It hasn’t been easy, choosing to have them taken off. I’ve had four surgeries, and necrosis, and a bunch of other stuff, but you know what? I’d take this any day over cancer.”

When faced with unimaginable loss, Nicole chose to stay and fight. In the past eight years, she has raised over $41,000 through the 3-Day, funding dozens of life-saving treatments and ground-breaking research. “I don’t do this because I think it’s fun or cute. I don’t do this to wear a pink tutu around town. That’s not why I do what I do. I do what I do so that my children will never have to hear, ‘you have breast cancer.’”

And that’s exactly why we do what we do, Nicole; so that you, your children, our children, our aunts, our mothers, our fathers, our friends, our sisters, or our brothers never have to hear, “you have breast cancer.”

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This Mother’s Day, make the commitment to helping us end breast cancer forever. If you’re a first-time walker, use the code BYB16 by May 9th to receive a free round trip plane ticket to the 3-Day. If you last walked between 2008 and 2014, you may also be eligible for free airfare by using code SPRING16. Check your 3-Day email for details. You can also change your profile picture on your social media accounts to support moms everywhere, via Susan G. Komen. Click here to try it now.

My Story: by Ricki Fairley

I walk because I can.

I walk 60 miles because I am #WalkingInBlessings.

I walk for 3 days because I am #TriplePositive.

I walk because I am inspired by the amazing 3-Day community walking with me.

I walk because raising awareness of triple negative breast cancer is my purpose and raising money for research is my mission.

I walk because it is my Faith walk.

I walk because I can’t imagine not walking.

In October of this year I will celebrate five years of survivorship/thrivership.

My cancer diagnosis story is not unlike the stories of many other women. I was a typical, multi-tasking miracle-working, taking-care-of-everyone superhero Black woman who went to the doctor for my annual check-up. It was there, in the most unexpected of surprises, that I was diagnosed with stage III-A triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive molecular breast cancer sub-type. It represents about 15 percent of breast cancers and currently, there are no targeted therapies, which makes recurrence more prevalent and the mortality rate significantly higher. Also, it affects Black women at twice the rate as women of other races/ethnicities in the U.S.

The next steps were terrifying ones. I had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and underwent radiation. In my first meeting with my oncologist, she said I would probably only live for 2 years. At the time, my youngest daughter was a sophomore at Dartmouth. I told my doctor that she, I and God would have to work something out because I not only wanted to see Hayley graduate college, but I also had to continue to work so I could pay for it. Somehow, I needed to make it through.

By the grace of God and my doctors, I watched my daughter graduate and her sister, Amanda, recently get married.

Courtesy of Ricki Fairley

Courtesy of Ricki Fairley

My recovery wasn’t all in hospitals and healthcare facilities. My faith, the support of family and my sista friends carried me through.

I had to find peace in my life. I did that by getting rid of all the cancers in my life, not just the one in my breast. I quit my life and started a new one by divorcing my husband of 30 years, separating from my business partners of 10 years, selling my house in the suburbs and moving to the beach. Between my 3rd and 4th rounds of chemo, I started my own business so that I could have more control over my daily life. My “prayer closet,” where I find peace, is on my paddleboard on the Chesapeake Bay. My personal hashtags are #WalkingInBlessings and #TriplePositive.

Courtesy of Ricki Fairley

Courtesy of Ricki Fairley

Though I am blessed and doing well, other Black women are not as fortunate, and it’s certainly not for lack of their own faith or will. The statistics are troubling. According to the CDC and ACS, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among African-American women. In 2016, about 30,700 new cases of breast cancer are expected to occur among African-American women.

According to the American Cancer Society, since 2003, breast cancer incidence has remained stable in white women and has increased slightly (less than 1 percent per year) in black women.

Overall, breast cancer incidence is lower for African-American than white women. However, for women younger than 45, incidence is higher among African-American women than white women. While the incidence rate for breast cancer is lower in African-American women, the mortality rate was 39 percent higher in African-American women than in white women in 2013 (most recent data available). African-American women are also diagnosed at later stages.  And African-American women are twice as likely to have Triple Negative Breast Cancer, the more aggressive form that I had, than women of other races and ethnicities.

This new guidance from ACS of moving the age to get our first mammogram to age 45 (and repeating every year from ages 45-54) could cause the numbers above to increase. If we look at this latest set of guidelines in light of what we know about black women and breast cancer, we can only expect more deaths from breast cancer in our community.

I work diligently to make women know about this disease and raise funds for research efforts. Komen is spending $54 million on researching new treatment strategies for triple negative breast cancer. Also, I believe so strongly in the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation (TNBCFoundation.org) that I now serve on their Board of Trustees. For our disease, they are the primary resource with up-to-date information on the latest research, the specialized doctors and they have a 24/7 discussion forum where women living with TNBC and their families can go for support. They also have toll-free telephone help line that is staffed by oncology social workers trained to handle our specific needs.

Komen’s Breast Care Helpline (1-877 GO KOMEN (1-877-465-6636) is also a great resource for any and all things related to breast health and breast cancer.

I tell everyone I know to check the breasts that you love; I know you have a pair. It is important for women to know how their breasts look and feel and report any changes to a doctor. Get a clinical breast exam by a trained medical professional at least every 3 years beginning at age 20 and annually after age 40. Talk with a doctor about which screening tests are right for you if you are at a higher risk. If you follow me on Twitter @RickiDove, I tweet a monthly reminder on the 20th of each month.

As Black women, we try to take care of everyone, and often at the expense of our own mental and physical health. We don’t always have to be super heroes. Listen to the direction of flight attendants; put the mask on yourself first. Take a pause for yourself every day, take care of yourself and find peace in your life. I find peace in making a difference in this fight against breast cancer.

Consider walking in the Komen 3-Day! It’s three days of friendship, inspiration and encouragement. After walking 60 miles, you will walk away with a memory that you will treasure for the rest of your life.  Join my team and walk with us in San Diego in November: Triple Positive Faith Hope Cure, OR if you are a first-time walker Register to walk by May 9th with the code BYB16 and you’ll get a free plane ticket to and from the event, so you can experience the magic for yourself. Read all about it at The3Day.org/Bestie. Sign up today!

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Photo Courtesy of Ricki Fairley