Race for Cure keeps survivors in step with cancer research

Komen event attracts more than 20,000 participants


As she walked across the finish line, Sandra Stromberger paused to hold her son, Dan Meyers.

They closed their eyes, letting go of a few tears.

Thirteen years ago, while Stromberger was overcoming breast cancer, she walked in Baltimore's first Race for the Cure, a fundraiser put on annually by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit charity organization.

Then, she was one of a handful of cancer survivors who huddled together for a photograph after the race, which then drew 500 to 600 people. Yesterday, she was one of more than 2,000 survivors and 20,000 participants.

After letting go of her son, who had come from Jersey, Ga., to walk with her, Stromberger reflected on how times have changed for the racing event and for breast cancer treatment.

"The fact that there are more people here, and more survivors, means more women are being saved," said Stromberger, 62, who just passed a mammogram before the race. "Every year's another milestone."

Robin Prothro, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the Komen Foundation, said this year's participation in the race would set a record for numbers and for fundraising, which topped more than $1 million.

Donations finance education and research efforts, folding into the organization's efforts to find a cure and promote early detection of breast cancer. Maryland has the fifth-highest breast cancer death rate in the United States, and more than 4,000 women in the state are expected to get diagnoses of breast cancer this year, according to 2003 statistics for the American Cancer Society.

The Race for the Cure series of 5-kilometer runs and fitness walks is the largest such series in the world, consisting of more than 100 races that have drawn 1 million participants this year. The event is the largest footrace in the state and one of the largest charity events.

The route, through Federal Hill, virtually shut down some parts of the city as the thousands descended on M&T Bank Stadium, where the race began and ended.

Although many mourned the loss of loved ones as they finished the race, it was a generally festive atmosphere, with live music, food and many knickknacks that some participants toted to their cars before they started the 5K trek.

Like many other participants, Stromberger wore pink to the race, a color that marked survivors and the loved ones of breast cancer victims. Others donned pink bandanas, wristbands and hats with inscribed ribbons to show how many years they have survived.

Cindy Littman, 46, of Owings Mills, who had four ribbons on her hat, took comfort in seeing women with more ribbons on their hats than her.

Jacky Addeman, 38, wore a lime green shirt representing a team from a women's gym in Odenton. Adderman, of South Riding, Va., received a breast cancer diagnosis last year. She is in remission after a mastectomy and reconstruction, and she participates in breast cancer walks because it "keeps me going, mentally and spiritually."

Pink was not reserved for survivors. Keith Easternack, 48, wore a pink sign on his back that said: "In memory of Diane, my wife."

She died in March at age 47.

"It's amazing to come to something like this and see how many people it [breast cancer] touches," he said. "So many young women, daughters and mothers, leave this world because of it. Things like this advance research so that, hopefully, they can lead longer lives."

Easterneck, who lives in Reisterstown, raced with his sons, Bryan, 14, and Erik, 11.

"I think people are really dedicated," Erik said. "I hope more people can come to things like this so other kids my age won't have to suffer what I've suffered through."

Denise O'Neill, 45, was among the first survivors to finish the 5-kilometer race, as the sun warmed a crisp October morning yesterday. She raced with her sister and finished in about 24 minutes. O'Neill has also finished four three-day, 60-mile walks organized by the Komen Foundation and Avon.

A former vice president of Nabisco, O'Neill labels herself a cancer survivor as of 2 1/2 years ago. In the past year, instead of returning to work, she has poured her energy into Survivors Offering Support, or SOS, a nonprofit she founded that aims to support women with breast cancer by providing them with breast cancer survivors as mentors during their treatment.

O'Neill isn't planning to return to work, she said. Fighting cancer is her calling.

"For me, the more I feel I'm in the center of the fight against cancer, the less I fear cancer," O'Neill said. "When you're fighting it every day, you see the ups and downs of other women who are fighting it, too. I just don't want anyone to go at it alone."

More than 80 women are involved in the group, at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis and at Frederick Memorial Hospital in Frederick.

O'Neill will look to the Komen Foundation, the world's largest private provider of funds for cancer research and community outreach programs, for grants to help expand SOS. The foundation has awarded more than 1,000 international grants totaling $144 million for breast cancer research projects since its founding in 1982.


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