Striding forth for cure, they put city in the pink

Race: In an annual show of hope and solidarity, the breast cancer fund-raiser draws 20,000 participants to Baltimore's streets.

October 14, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

James Keyser got home yesterday at 3 a.m. after his shift driving a tractor-trailer for H&S Bakery. Before sunrise, Keyser was up again. He had promised his wife, Lillian, that he would join the 5K walk with her at the Race for the Cure.

As tired as he was, Keyser, 46, of Lansdowne didn't think twice.

"Me and her, we're soulmates," he said of his wife of 26 years, who is a three-year breast cancer survivor.

By dawn, the Keysers were among throngs of participants who had arrived at PSINet Stadium for the ninth annual Baltimore race to support the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

A little before 9 a.m., the Keysers, with an estimated 20,000 other runners and walkers, set off to the theme of "Rocky" on a loop through downtown Baltimore. Some were serious runners - including a man with two leg prostheses - and some were casual strollers.

Pinned to T-shirts were the names of loved ones who have known breast cancer. Those who have died of the disease were memorialized and those who have survived were celebrated. Some lists contained five or more names with messages such as "I love you mom," and "my sweetie."

Here and there, walkers wore the photographs of a loved one on T-shirts. In addition to bright pink gear promoting breast cancer awareness, more than a few participants sported red, white and blue in tribute to the victims of last month's terrorist attacks.

The Keysers walked north on Paca Street, which had become a sea of people atop which bobbed so many pink survivor's caps. Some participants paused briefly at the St. Jude Shrine to petition Catholicism's patron saint of those in desperate need.

It was a routine physical exam a few years ago that led Lillian Keyser to the Breast Center at St. Agnes HealthCare. There, further tests revealed she had breast cancer.

When she first learned of the diagnosis, Keyser, who works as a nursing assistant at North Arundel Medical Center, said she took it as a death sentence.

"The fear controls you," she said. "It's more [a worry] about who you have to take care of than about yourself."

But the more the Keysers learned, the less they feared. Lillian placed herself in the hands of hospital staff, undergoing a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, courses of chemotherapy and radiation. She also volunteered for three clinical studies.

Throughout treatment, she said, she appreciated the way her St. Agnes team never held out "false hope or told you what you wanted to hear. It was the truth, but it was kind."

James took three months' leave of absence from work to tend to his wife. They still go to all of her medical appointments together. When she comes out with good news, "We always do the hug," she said.

The Keysers have known each other since childhood. But it wasn't until James bought a green and black 1969 Chevelle Super- Sport that Lillian took more notice of her neighbor, who had supported himself since he was 15. For their first date, she bought him a pair of suitable pants to wear.

They now have two grown children, two grandsons and a large extended family. Last year, their son and daughter, a grandson and Lillian's sister accompanied her at Race for the Cure, crying as they walked. It was an overwhelming experience for them to see so many thousands of people, and among them, so many survivors, she said.

"It is emotional. It makes you feel like they're going to find a cure," said Lillian, who raised $400 in pledges this year.

As the Keysers headed west on Franklin Street, they laughed when a man holding a 1-mile marker shouted out their time, "Thirty-four minutes! You're looking very strong!"

The Race for the Cure has expanded to 112 sites in the United States since 1983. In that time, the events have raised about $431 million for breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment. Before Sept. 11, more than 1.3 million people had been expected to participate in races this year.

In Baltimore, close to 30,000 participants, including 2,000 survivors, were originally expected at this year's race, scheduled for Oct. 6. But after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the race was postponed a week to accommodate the Orioles' final home game of the season.

Although attendance didn't surpass last year's 25,000, the turnout didn't disappoint the event's organizers, given the date change and fears people might have had about taking part in a large public event. Yesterday's race did break a record for walk-up registration, with 2,000 people signing up, according to Kathy Cullen, who works in the Komen Foundation's Maryland office.

Last year, the Baltimore race raised $1.4 million. . Figures for this year's race have not been tallied, according to a spokeswoman.

The Keysers made their way down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and aimed for PSINet Stadium. Lillian Keyser was directed through the survivors' finish line, where dozens of volunteers cheered and applauded. Elsewhere on the stadium parking lot, volunteers offered bananas, apples and oranges to the happily returning masses.

Concluding the post-race ceremony, WJZ anchorwoman Sally Thorner read from a prepared statement that each woman with breast cancer has her "own individual battle. Your strength needs to be a lesson for all ... in these trying times."

With that, breast cancer survivors converged in a ribbon-shaped space to have their group picture taken by a photographer looking down on them from a crane.

Lillian Keyser joined the pink-shirted crowd. It's been a hard year. She's lost her father, a brother and nephew. But yesterday was a time to celebrate. And, she said, it was her turn to do for other breast cancer patients "what was done for me."

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