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[whitespace] Doing the walk of life

Local residents lace up for breast cancer fundraiser

Cupertino--More than 2,500 walkers from all parts of the Bay Area will converge on De Anza College this Friday to begin a three-day walk to San Francisco. While there are quicker ways to get to the city by the bay, the walkers are putting their best foot forward to raise money for breast cancer research in the Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day walk.

The walk spans 60 miles and takes place July 28-30. The walkers will walk 20 miles each day and spend the first night at Carlmont High School in Belmont and at Skyline Community College in San Bruno the second night. Hot showers are available, and nightly entertainment should soothe the weary soles away. Volunteers and doctors will be stationed at every mile along the way for water stops, massages and first aid. In all, Avon will distribute 6,950 tubes of sunscreen, pass out 124,000 antibacterial towelettes and serve 8,200 pounds of chicken.

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer will kill more than 40,800 women and 400 men in the United States in 2000. Additionally, in California alone 20,200 new cases will be diagnosed this year. There is no cure as yet, but researchers agree that early detection goes a long way. When detected early, the five-year survival rate for breast cancer patients is 97 percent.

Avon held similar three-day breast cancer walks in Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago earlier this summer. The walks will conclude in October in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles.

Each of the walkers are responsible for raising a minimum of $1,800, an amount they say was easily met. After numerous pledge letters, phone calls and emails, the participants say they have been blessed with generous friends.

"One of my customers gave me $1,800 in one day," said Cupertinian Ken Austin, who is walking in memory of his wife of 15 years who died four and a half years ago of breast cancer. "I'm not surprised because it pleased my friends that I'm doing this, and my wife was popular with lots of people."

Austin hopes to raise over $5,000 at the end of the pledging campaign.

Sunnyvale resident Karen Perez was able to raise the minimum in four days and attributes the contributions to her salesmanship qualities and her friends' benevolence. "My friends and co-workers admire me for doing this," says Perez. "I've done really well and raised $6,000. The training was more challenging."

The fitness levels of the participants range from active to none at all. Perez admits she isn't one to exercise regularly, so getting started was challenging. She, along with six girlfriends, met twice a week at Rancho San Antonio in Cupertino to train together and gradually work their way up.

"On my first walk, after ten minutes, I wanted to sit down. So it's great to see how far you've come," she said of her 20-miles-a-day goal.

One of Perez' training partners is Susan Martorano of Sunnyvale, who relies on her training group to help her get through each session. "At the beginning, two miles was quite a challenge, but we've added extra miles. So we've done 10-12 miles together," says Martorano.

Together, the women worry about completing the walk, but they hope that two pairs of shoes, adequate socks, some ibuprofen and a dose of inspiration will do the trick. "To visualize 60 miles is overwhelming, but the pain you feel is nothing compared to the pain of having breast cancer and going through treatment," said Martorano.

The money raised from this event and the other Avon walks will fund research and provide medical access to women who otherwise wouldn't have it. While all the walkers are participating because they have been touched by mothers, grandmothers, aunts and close friends who have battled breast cancer, they don't always agree when it comes to finding a cure.

Martorano, walking for her grandmother who had a double mastectomy in the 1960s, firmly believes a cure is on its way. "Yes, there will be a cure found in my lifetime," she said.

However, Austin doesn't share her confidence. "Researchers don't even know what cancer is. We just need more money so women can get early detection," he said.

Pat Plant is one of the cancer survivors for whom the participants are walking. She battled breast cancer three years ago and has been cancer-free. She says she will be at De Anza to cheer on her supporters who took care of her during her illness. "I'm so grateful they're doing this. They made me meals, took me to appointments and prayed for recovery," she says.

Plant says she didn't believe she could be a candidate for cancer when she was first diagnosed. "I thought I was invincible. I was so surprised, I thought this can't affect me," she said.

Austin was in similar denial when his wife was diagnosed at 33 and died at 39. She underwent 11 surgeries, eight radiation therapies and five rounds of chemotherapy. "I thought we were indestructible. Cancer happened to other people, not us. We had broken bones because we were athletic, but cancer is not something that is supposed to happen to us," he said.

The death of his wife was a heartbreaking loss for Austin, but he says he has grown and learned from the experience. He now knows not to take any day for granted and talks to friends and customers about the pervasiveness of the disease.

"People think they can smoke until they're 40, but I was in the oncology wards with women younger than my wife," he said. "Breast cancer is painful, and I hope women will pay attention earlier."

Despite knowing he'll wake up with sore feet on Monday, he gladly contributes to this cause so other women don't have to experience what his wife went through. After four years, Austin has met someone new and says he's finally happy again. "I didn't know how unhappy I was and the fact that I could love again. This is a wonderful experience," he says.

The key to breast cancer is still far away, but as the walkers approach the finish line on Sunday, women and girls will inch closer to a cure.
Michele Leung

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Web extra to the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of Metro.

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