Every year, 175,000 Americans are diagnosed with breast cancer, but like any disheartening statistic, it’s difficult to quantify the meaning without somehow putting the numbers into context. Having taken part in the Avon Breast Cancer walk in New York City since 2006, Rye’s Sandy Samberg can’t deny the manner in which the 39 mile, two day walk helps makes sense of the true tragedy.
“Throughout the walk weekend, every three minutes” says the co-founder of a Rye based walk team called Sole-Ryeders & Friends, “they put a ribbon onto a walker.”
The sea of pink necklaces brings home how many have beendiagnosed since the walk started the day before, she says. On the other hand, despite this reality, the Avon Walk is far from a somber affair.
Some liken the marathon and a half - and all the training people do beforehand - to a summer camp they don’t want to leave, according to Ms. Samberg’s co-founder, Lynn Halpern. But the altruistic affiliation goes deeper than that for many. “I never felt connected in my own community until I did this,” says Ms Halpern of a refrain she often hears.
Of course, real life inspiration plays the biggest part in persevering through the coursework (and the $1,800 each walker must raise). Among the walkers are numerous survivors and those currently in treatment for the disease. While stories can be heartbreaking and have unhappy endings, says Ms. Samberg, “You hear about the different ways people have overcome adversity,” and that makes the far off finish line seems not so distant, she adds.
One of those stories belongs to Eloise Caggiano, the Program Director of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in New York City. A former marathoner, she was abruptly diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 at the age of 33. Three years later, she put aside a career in public relations for this difference making career. But the success of her story stands as a key aspect of the message the nine countrywide walks are trying to get across.
“I caught my cancer early,” she says, “and had I waited another year for a mammogram, it would have been a very different situation.” Therefore, Avon clearly has a goal of getting as many women as possible to their annual detection.
In turn, 5,000 people dressed in pink goes along way to getting that message across but unfortunately awareness isn’t the only thing that prevents women from getting a screening. With the uninsured and underinsured likely lacking behind in their means to get screenings, the Avon Walk is doing what it can to fill in the gaps. “It’s funding programs that give free mammograms,” she says.
Of course, if your insurance status leaves you short on simply getting a test then a positive diagnosis is probably going to leave treatment out of reach. “The nice thing is that the majority of the money raised will stay in that area,” says Ms Caggiano, and assisting the underserved is part of budgets. In addition, the Avon Foundation provides patient navigator services so people can hopefully find the care their insurance – or lack or insurance – does not cover.
Sole Ryeders, like many other Avon Walk off-shoots, doesn’t stop stepping in this regard either. “In our community, we’ve become well known so when somebody is diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Ms. Samberg, “we often get a call and we’re able to help them in the early stages.”
At the same time, this unsettling news requires another type of intervention that isn’t as medically invasive but probably just as important. “Sandy will give me a call and I’m able to share my experience with them,” says Sara Miller, Sole Ryeder and breast cancer survivor of five years.
On the other hand, fellow Sole Ryeder and survivor Dawn Ewing won’t speak for anyone else’s struggle. This disease is very personal and you have to be sensitive to each person’s situation because you can’t know how they feel– even if you’ve been through it, says Ms. Ewing.
Nonetheless, she claims a commonality among those who live to Avon walk another October day. “There’s an incredible feeling of strength and empowerment of just knowing that you are a survivor,” she says.
Riding that wave, it brings her to a realization that is bigger than any one individual. “You’re part of a movement that is looking to figure out a way for this disease to not exist,” she says.
Sara Miller agrees and keeps it closer to home in her steps. “I have a sister and I have nieces and I want to do whatever I can to prevent them from walking into a doctor’s office,” she says, “and having this horrible diagnosis.”
Included in whatever it takes, and definitely not forgotten, is the $1,800 each walker must raise. “It’s daunting,” says Ms. Halpern, but envisioning the end of the financial marathon, is similar to the way the walk doesn’t seem so distant among so many like minded people.
Doing fundraisers like a beach parties, boutique night and girls nights out, Sole Ryeder socials always allows this group of about 50 to hit the mark. Coming in as the number one fundraisers in Westchester for the last two years, says Ms. Halpern, “When you say cancer, when you say family health, it doesn’t seem to be that hard to raise money.”
Since the inception in 2003, it amounts to $350 million raised nationwide and a hand-on context also applies here for everyone involved. Thoroughly screened and researched by Avon, says Ms. Caggiano of the benefactors, the checks are cut and presented to the local organizations of the walkers’ good will.
And crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, while hitting varied neighborhoods, 10,000 pairs of sneakers are in no need of a tour guide. “It’s a great way to see New York City,” says Ms. Samberg.
Included in a loop that begins and ends at Pier 84, a slumber party on Randall’s Island splits the two day event. Sharing blister stories over dinner and at the medical tent, says five year Sole Ryeder Jaena Mebane, “It brought me back to my girl scout days.”
Having deferred on the tents for a hotel since the first year, she puts aside the difficulty of the hike in favor of those who have a lot more at stake with the disease. “If they can participate in something this intense then it makes my issues seem a lot less important, because they’re putting everything on the line to spread awareness and find a cure,” she says.
In closing, the 39 mile excursion certainly alters the lives of many across the country who are have been afflicted, but the ceremony that caps it all off seems to effect a change on everyone. Watching the survivors cross the finish and make their speeches, says Ms. Samberg, it’s just so powerful, and is life altering in itself, she concludes.