Compassion and hope prevail in race for cure

Event raises funds for breast cancer research

October 22, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

At first, Steve Levin was looking for a couple hundred energetic volunteers from his children's school to run a few miles, enjoy a nice day and help raise some money for breast cancer research.

But then hundreds more students, parents, alumni and faculty from the McDonogh School in Owings Mills signed up, and then hundreds more after that. Pretty soon, the Reisterstown marketing director had assembled a team of more than 600 people to run in the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's 14th annual Race for the Cure.

Yesterday, the McDonogh team won top honors at the race for raising the most money, a total of $40,000.

Yet even as Levin and his wife, Michelle, beamed with their two children at the Camden Yards finish line, recent events cast a pall over their achievement. Michelle Levin, who was first diagnosed with the disease at 34, is again battling the cancer at age 43. She received her latest diagnosis this summer.

For the Levins, events like the Komen race show how far the culture has come in recognizing the disease and its increasing toll on younger women.

"Fifteen years ago, people thought breast cancer was an old lady disease and didn't talk about it," Steve Levin said. "It's an aggressive cancer, affecting larger numbers of younger women, but we'll stay ahead of it."

Yesterday's 5K race, one of many held around the country each year, raised more than $2 million for the Komen foundation, the largest national nonprofit dedicated to breast cancer research and treatment, according to Robin Prothro, executive director of Komen Maryland.

Prothro said most of the money will stay in the region and benefit hospitals, research centers and health departments.

Under sun-splashed red leaves, about 25,000 people participated in yesterday's race - some in wheelchairs, some with strollers, some running and some taking it slow.

Men wore pink, the color symbolizing the struggle against the disease, which largely affects women but also occurs in men.

Many ran with signs naming a mother, daughter, or grandmother who had been diagnosed with the disease. One woman, Susan Mannekin, had her hair cut onstage to donate it to someone in need of a wig during chemotherapy.

Over and over, the word "survivor" wafted by the statues of sports legends Johnny Unitas and Babe Ruth.

"This is my 10th year as a survivor," Pat Montgomery, 54, said, showing off a visor with 10 pink ribbons. A resident of Gambrills in Anne Arundel County, she said that having a mastectomy was harrowing.

"The chemo, and having a part of your body cut off, was the worst time of my life," Montgomery said. "It's emotional to be here with all walks of life, of different ages."

John Vroman, 28, a Baltimore resident, said he came out with his wife, Pam, because his mother is a six-year survivor. About the toll taken on families of cancer patients, he said, "It's tough. You're afraid you're going to lose your mother."

Many walked to honor the memory of a loved one lost to breast cancer or to celebrate an early detection.

Don Collahan, 68, a retired court reporter and Severna Park resident, walked with family members in memory of his wife, Patricia. He watched the disease destroy her, stage by stage.

"It ain't much fun," he said.

On a lighter note, the "Pratt Cat," mascot for the Enoch Pratt Free Library, hand-slapped and danced to the live rock music.

In addition to being a major fundraiser for breast cancer research, the event has become a see-and-be-seen event for political aspirants and those seeking re-election.

Katie Curran O'Malley, whose husband, Mayor Martin O'Malley, is running for governor, and Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich appeared in athletic gear to cheer on the cause. Despite their husbands' political rivalry, the two avid runners managed a quick hello before dashing off into the distance.

Ehrlich, who lost a brother to cancer, said the upbeat scene is empowering to those still grieving.

"If you've lost a family member to cancer, you really feel very emotional for lots of people. It's uplifting to have support," she said.

At 80, Elizabeth Kurek of Perry Hall had a double mastectomy years ago.

Flanked by four of her five daughters, two grandchildren and a great-grandson, she said, "My children are happy I'm doing what I'm doing, walking today."

Later, on the bridge near the finish line, she stumbled and fell on her hand, hurting her wrist, and was treated by rescue workers.

Standing with the McDonogh team he recruited, Steve Levin said he was moved by the diverse collection of schoolchildren, teachers, staff, parents and alumni who pitched in to help. About 30 in the group are survivors of breast cancer.

"It's been a tremendous outpouring," Levin said. "I think of McDonogh as a microcosm. You don't have to go far to find a neighbor or a friend or a family member that has breast cancer."

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