September 4, 2007
A future without breast cancer
Kathy Britt, the interlibrary loan lending coordinator for Woodruff Library, is taking strides to
beat breast cancer by walking in the Atlanta Breast Cancer 3-Day on Oct. 12–14.
When I found the lump on Feb. 23, 1996, little did I suspect that 11-and-a-half years later I’d be a survivor walking 60 miles in the Atlanta Breast Cancer 3-Day.
My journey with breast cancer began that day, but my diagnosis and treatment didn’t start until a full week later. I had to wait for my health insurance coverage to begin before I could go to the doctor. The general physician who examined me was unconcerned. I was young (only 29 at the time) with no family history of cancer. “Nothing to worry about,” the doctor told me. “We’ll recheck you again in six months. It’s probably just a cyclical change in the breast tissue.” Fortunately, my mother insisted on a referral to a surgeon, who ordered a mammogram and a biopsy. As it turned out, I had a malignant tumor that was 7 centimeters in diameter, and seven out of 21 lymph nodes that were removed also were cancerous. Stage 2B, I was told. Tests indicated that the tumor was very aggressive and had grown to that large size in just a couple of months. If I had waited six months to seek diagnosis and treatment, I would probably be dead. I never forget that fact.
As can be imagined, this news was a shock to me as a 29-year-old. I thought only older women were supposed to get breast cancer. My partner and I joined a newly formed support group. Out of the seven cancer patients in the group, three of us were under the age of 30. As with anyone who gets this sort of news, I thought my diagnosis was a death sentence.
I knew nothing of the disease, other than the ubiquitous shower hang-tags given out at women’s clinics and doctor’s offices encouraging women to do monthly self breast exams. I began researching and learning everything I could. I would go to my doctors’ appointments with a legal pad full of questions.
Throughout my ordeal, I received tremendous support from my family, friends and community. With the encouragement of my doctors and family, I decided to undergo an experimental and very aggressive treatment as part of a study partially funded by the Komen Foundation. This treatment, now standard, was considered cutting edge at the time and left me very weak. My immune system shut down completely, and at one point I suffered a systemic infection that landed me in the hospital in a sterile room, wracked with fever and close to death. As trying as the treatment was, I knew it was my best chance to avoid the high likelihood of a recurrence in my case. I swore that if I made it through, I would one day do something to give back for all of the help I’d received.
So now, after all of my treatments — surgery, chemo, stem-cell transplant, radiation, medication, more surgery and yearly full-body bone scans, CT scans, chest X-rays and ultrasounds — I was finally ready to give back. Over the years, I have helped with breast cancer education, volunteered for several breast cancer-related organizations (including the support group that initially aided my partner and me) and been interviewed for a local television news show. At this point I wanted to do more and I knew that the time was right. But, what more could I do?
For several years in the fall, I had seen the Breast Cancer 3-Day participants walking through Decatur on their way to Piedmont Park. I always stopped, honked my horn and got tears in my eyes thinking of the sacrifices these women and men were making in order to raise money to find a cure for breast cancer. I also thought of the fact that, if not for the experimental treatment, I would most likely be dead. I wanted to walk, but I thought of it only when it was too late — in the fall, when I saw the walkers. Few people realize that this type of commitment requires months of work to participate, including training and fundraising. Each walker and volunteer pays a registration fee that covers their expenses during the event. This way, almost all of the money raised goes directly to the programs funded by Komen for the Cure. In fact, over 80 percent of funds raised during the Breast Cancer 3-Day are distributed to their projects — making Komen for the Cure one of the most successful nonprofit organizations in the country. The organization has evolved so that they not only fund research, but also education, screening and treatment, both locally and nationally.
My sister, Lynda Britt ’93C, suggested that we give the walk a try. Before I knew it, she had signed us up for an informational meeting for the Atlanta Breast Cancer 3-Day, held this year on Oct. 12-14. We signed up for the walk on the spot, committing ourselves to raising $2,200 each (that’s $4,440 total!), and walking four days a week for training. I don’t know what was more intimidating: raising the money, or walking the 60 miles.
You can walk in this event without training, but it is not recommended. We did not want to be carted off with injuries to the hospital in the middle of the walk, nor did we want to be the last walkers to arrive in camp. As a result, we walk every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday — even while on vacation. To date, we have logged 426 training miles, and by the date of the event, we will have walked 548 training miles.
Each week the mileage grows, our legs get stronger, our feet get tougher, and our buns get firmer (a nice bonus!). All of this training will help us survive the three consecutive 20-mile days, and it has created another lasting bond between me and my sister. I will always cherish the time we have spent together preparing for this event.
Both my partner and my sister’s boyfriend have volunteered for the “crew,” a team of volunteers that commits to working the entire three days, including an extra day before the event to get everything ready. With thousands of walkers, hundreds of volunteers are needed to make the event run smoothly. Health care professionals and massage therapists also can volunteer to be on the medical crews to assist walkers with minor medical needs or triage major problems. Several of the medical volunteers are affiliated with Emory.
I know that all of this effort will be worth it. Walkers and volunteers who have participated in previous years all say that it is a life-changing experience. As Oct. 12 approaches, I am getting both excited and nervous. I have never done anything like this before, but I’m sure I’ll do it again.
I walk so that every woman with breast cancer will survive, as I did. I walk so that research will advance and one day we will find a cure for breast cancer. I walk to give hope to my partner, sister, mother, nieces and all of the other women in my life for a future without breast cancer.
For more information or to donate, please visit www.the3day.org/atlanta07/kathybritt.