In an event marked equally by celebration and remembrance, some 20,000 people wearing the pink-and-white colors of a national movement snaked through Baltimore's downtown streets yesterday to support the fight against breast cancer.
Tacked to the backs of many were the names of friends and relatives who died of the disease. But the 10th annual Maryland Race for the Cure -- a fund-raiser that drew serious runners along with casual but determined walkers -- carried an optimistic tone set by the large number of women who have fought cancer and survived.
"This is very emotional for me," said Sylvia Ely of Pikesville, who was treated for breast cancer 25 years ago when the disease carried a stigma. "I've lived to see two children in full bloom and four wonderful grandchildren.
"I'm a good example that you can live, that there is a lot of hope."
The event, organized by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, raised about $1 million for research, education and services for women battling breast cancer. This year, the foundation expects to stage 115 races in the United States and abroad, with more than 1.4 million participants expected.
The throngs began to gather shortly after dawn in the parking lot just north of Ravens Stadium. Later, under a hazy blue sky, some ran along a 5-kilometer course, while others who chose to walk had the option of covering the full course or a 1-mile loop. Among the crowd were the old and the young, babies in backpacks and dogs on leashes.
Some of the women who gathered under a pink "survivors' tent" before the race recognized each other from past events, though others who were complete strangers initiated conversations and became fast friends. Such was the case with Ely, Leslie Grey and Gloria Gladden, who met after writing inscriptions on white upholstered chairs that were to be donated to the cancer departments at three local hospitals.
"We just sat here crying," said Grey, a five-year survivor from Baltimore. "One person started crying, the next person started crying, and we all started crying and hugging each other. It feels good."
"You make a lot of lasting friends," said Gladden of Baltimore, whose cancer was diagnosed six years ago. "You come back and look for your buddies."
Ely, who attended her first Race for the Cure yesterday, said she didn't like to talk about her disease when she was treated. Those who did know acted awkwardly, offering exaggerated sympathy that made her feel as if she were marked for death.
"It's more out in the open now -- it's not a stigma," she said. "I needed more people to talk to, so I came down here by myself. I can see I have sisters. Anyone who had it is my sister."
Genie Elliott of Baltimore wore a sign remembering her sister, Esther Mallonee Bard, who died years ago at the age of 32. Elliott's daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Elliott, wore a sign honoring her aunt -- whom she never knew -- along with a physician who died on Friday.
"This disease is affecting a lot of people," said Elizabeth Elliott. "To see so many people supporting research is amazing."
It was the eighth race for Stephanie Evans of Upperco, but it was the first time she couldn't walk the course. Over the years, she has endured chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. Yesterday, breathing from an oxygen tank, she rode in a wheelchair that was pushed by her son, Charles "Griff" Evans.
"It's very heartwarming," said Evans, who was named Survivor of the Year last year for the counseling she has lent others. "I just know that if there is going to be a cure, it's going to come from this type of support. It's also a real tribute to the population that they're willing to come out for this."
Her husband, Charles Evans, also marveled at the river of humanity flowing virtually to the horizon.
"You begin to realize the enormity of the disease, but also the loving and caring people we have around us," he said. "It's unbelievable."
Though the disease has dealt many blows, he said it has also taught his family the fragility of life and, through that, the value of spending time together.
"The one beauty of this disease is that it gives you time, quality time. It teaches us what a thin thread you're on."