September 2011–How it all started again

A lot happened between December 2000 and September 2011: middle school, high school, summer camp, boyfriends, proms, driver’s license, first job, traveling to Europe, going to university, sorority, internships…”the usual” for many girls.

I started September with a really positive attitude. I’d spent the summer in Europe, traveling around with my best friend and then taking classes at the University of Cambridge for a month. I returned to an exciting job as an Editorial Assistant at a web company in Santa Monica, a loving and genuinely fun boyfriend, and my parents’ new apartment right near the beach. Senior year at USC was about to start and I couldn’t wait to see what was in store for me.

My mom and I were driving to Costco to buy supplies for my upcoming Oktoberfest party when she mentioned that her usual yearly mammogram wasn’t so usual. There were some spots on her breast, but she said they were most likely harmless calcifications. She seemed nonchalant about the subject, so I didn’t think about it too much.

September 27th was a Tuesday, my day for classes. At the time I worked in Santa Monica about 30 hours a week and managed to schedule all of my necessary classes into one day. I was in ITP 411, Interactive Multimedia Production, when my mom called.

She left no voicemail, so I called her back when I got out of class around 1 pm. I was headed to a friend’s apartment for lunch.

“I got the results of my biopsy today. My breast cancer is back.”

felakfjewlfjel;waj 3249 vjaldsjafl jl;fjr9124012-4012 dakl;fjdal;fjl;ds jfalwejfeljaflewjflkewj; That was my reaction.

Everything she said after that was a blur. I choked back tears on the phone and eventually hung up. I had nothing to say to my mom at that point.

I was pissed. SO pissed. Mad. Angry. Livid. Whatever.

I spent an hour stewing at my friend’s apartment. She turned on an episode of Friends and I let a feeling of numbness take over. But after a while, I felt antsy. My next class started at 2 pm…there was no way I was going. I sent the following cryptic email to my professor:

I just wanted to let you know that I’m not going to ITP 300 today. My mom decided to call me right after ITP 411 to tell me some pretty shitty family news and I really don’t feel like staying around USC right now. Anyway  I just thought you should know so that you don’t think I’m just skipping class for fun. This is a pretty awkward email so you don’t have to respond to it. Sorry. I’m not feeling very articulate right now. see you next week.

I walked home and jumped in my car. I know, I know–you’re not supposed to drive when you’re emotional. But what the hell was I supposed to do at USC?

I had told my boyfriend earlier in the day that I would drive out to see him after class, so I got on I-10 East and headed toward his house. As a sort of warning I sent him an even more cryptic text message:

My mom’s breast cancer is back. I don’t want to talk about it. Just letting you know.

If it had been my choice, I would not have told him. I would not have told anyone about it.

I drove and cried. Cried and drove. Screamed, yelled, cried. Snarled even. Drove.

Somewhere along the way, the song “Walk” by the Foo Fighters came on the radio. Dave Grohl is speaking to me in this song, I thought to myself:

A million miles away
Your signal in the distance
To whom it may concern
I think I lost my way
Getting good at starting over
Every time that I return

I’m learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?
I’m learning to talk again
Can’t you see I’ve waited long enough?
Where do I begin?

The song “Walk,” besides helping the Foo Fighters to win Best Rock Song at the Grammy Awards, would become my anthem for the next few months. September had suddenly taken a very, very bad turn.

Rachel does the 3-Day

When I was nine, breast cancer didn’t mean much to me beyond knowing that my mom was sick. But as the years progressed, I started to understand more about what cancer was and how lucky our family was that my mom was healthy again.

Part of this understanding was developed from my mom’s participation in the Avon (and later Susan G. Komen) 3-Day walks: sixty miles of walking over three days to raise money for breast cancer. By 2005, she had either walked or crewed five different events.

The minimum age for participation in the 3-Day is 16, so by the time I was 15, I knew I would be participating in a walk the following year. We formed a team of walkers called 4H: Horned Hoofers for Healthy Hooters. The team consisted of me, my mom, my mom’s best friend Arlene, my best friend Lindsey, Arlene’s daughter Erin, and a woman named Barbie who worked with Arlene.

A training walk in San Francisco…Arlene got our team Hooters shirts, and we ran into some of Mom’s walking buddies along the way! (L to R: Lindsey, Rachel, Arlene, Shirley)

It was so nice to have an experienced walker (my mom) to organize all of our training walks. Our schedule was pretty consistent: during the week, Lindsey, Mom and I would try to do at least two short, local walks. On the weekend we would meet as a group to do longer walks. The location of these longer walks often varied: sometimes we would walk around San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito; other times we’d go on hikes around nature preserves in the Bay Area.

Besides training, I also had to fundraise. In order to walk, I needed to raise $2,200. This was the tricky part, but I made it work. I wrote letters to friends and family giving information about the event and discussing how breast cancer had impacted my life. People who wished to donate could either do so via snail mail or online. My friends and family came through with flying colors, graciously helping me to pass the goal of $2,200.

The actual Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day was in San Diego in November of 2006. At the start of our training a year earlier it seemed like walking twenty miles a day for three days was an impossible goal to reach, but by the time we made it down to San Diego, it was reality. Five to seven mile training walks had been replaced by sixteen to nineteen mile treks, and we were ready to go!

Team 4H: Horned Hoofers for Healthy Hooters (L to R: Lindsey, Rachel, Shirley, Barbie, Arlene)

The 3-Day was amazing. Seriously, if anyone is considering walking you should do it, it’s so much fun. San Diego was a great location; the walking route was beautiful! And the community embraced us…there were supporters on the sidelines, handing out popsicles, pins, beads–even wine! At night, we camped out in tents. Hot meals were provided for us, and there was even a shower truck!

Lindsey and me, keeping clean near the shower trucks.

Even though my feet hurt and I developed blisters, I kept walking throughout those three days because of the rush of adrenaline I got:

  • People were cheering me on everywhere I turned.
  • There were cute bike cops from San Jose riding alongside us.
  • If I really wanted a break I could hop into a “sweep” vehicle that was decorated with boobs and would drop me off a mile further along the route.
  • The snacks were delicious.
  • Sometimes we’d walk by the beach and see shirtless surfers…Lindsey and I always cheered.

All in all, it was a pretty good deal: raise a couple thousand dollars in order to have the time of your life!

Just chilling with some San Jose bike cops along the route!

Our team loved it so much that we decided to walk again in 2009. This time it was a bit less organized; I was at USC, Lindsey was at UCSB, and Mom and Arlene were in Northern California. We didn’t have the luxury of a consistent training schedule, but we made it work! Our new team name for the 2009 event was Doppelgangers.

Team Doppelgangers, posing with some fans along the route.

Throughout all of the 3-Day events my mom and I have participated in, our combined contribution to breast cancer research has been over $40,000. We couldn’t have done it without the support of our friends and family. All in a 3-Day’s work!


Mom goes for a walk

Within one year of finishing chemotherapy and radiation, Mom decided to go for a walk. A really, really long walk. (No, not a long walk off of a short pier–we didn’t drive her THAT crazy!)

In July 2001 she completed her first Avon Breast Cancer 3-Day walk. Surely everyone knows about these type of events now: if you’re one of the few people in the world who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a fundraising letter from me or my mom, you have to at least know that organizations like Susan G. Komen, Avon, Nike and Revlon are really into these “Race for the Cure” and “Woman’s Marathon” events to benefit cancer research.

For months, she trained and trained and trained. The actual walk in San Francisco was three days and 60 miles long. To put it into perspective for those non-walkers: that’s a helluva lot of walking!

She also fundraised. For every 3-Day walk (at the time it was sponsored by Avon; now the Susan G. Komen Foundation organizes the 3-Day) participants must raise a minimum amount of money that is put toward breast cancer research; in 2001, it was $1,900.

She joined a team of walkers in the Bay Area. They met twice a week to train, completing walks all around the Bay Area. At first the walks were short; 5-7 miles. But as the months passed and the 3-Day became closer, the training walks lengthened; 15-20 miles. That’s a lot of water, blisters, and pairs of socks.

The 2001 3-Day officially started on Friday, July 27th in Menlo Park, California. It ended on Sunday, July 29th at Marina Green in San Francisco with a 5 pm closing ceremony. My dad decided we would go into the city that Sunday to cheer on Mom at the end of the walk. I remember how amazed I was by the number of walkers. There were just so many people!

“The Journey Begins” photo from

The most memorable part of the experience was definitely the Survivor Circle. At the start of the closing ceremony, each walker was given an official 3-Day t-shirt; most were blue, but the breast cancer survivors received pink shirts. All of the survivors walked into the closing ceremony together. I knew my mom was one of them! A touching moment for an eleven-year-old.

After that first 3-Day in 2001, my mom was bitten by the 3-Day bug. For the next four years, she was either walking or crewing an event:

  • 2002: she crewed the San Francisco 3-Day
  • 2003: she walked the Santa Barbara 3-Day with my aunt Jackie
  • 2004: she walked the San Francisco 3-Day with her friend Skylar
  • 2005: she crewed the San Francisco 3-Day

That’s a lot of walking, and a lot of fundraising! Crew members don’t walk (they handle all of the behind-the-scenes work that makes the event fun for the walkers), but they still have to fundraise. Between all of these walks (and the two she did with me; see the later blog post), my mom raised $35,000 for breast cancer research!

You can put a number on the amount of money raised, but the memories a 3-Day walker has from the event are priceless. Aww, cheesy, I know.

For further reading about the event, take a look at these two articles from 2001 in which my mom is quoted:

Training together for 60-mile trek from the Pleasanton Weekly

Sole mates band together for breast cancer walk from the SF Chronicle (I see what they did there with the title hahaha)


Twelve years ago

Twelve years ago, I was a carefree nine-year-old who had just moved from Boston to San Francisco. School was going well, my parents promised to buy me a dog for Christmas, and I’d joined a soccer team.

Rachel and Madeline, early 2000

My head was in the clouds. I don’t remember much about my mom having cancer; I just knew she was sick. It didn’t mean very much to me.

In October of 1999, while getting dressed for work in the morning, my mom found a lump in her left breast. An October 14th mammogram and ultrasound revealed a “9 x 11 mm mass with ill-defined, indistinct margins.” An October 22nd biopsy confirmed it as a “grade 2 infiltrating ductal carcinoma.”

Rachel and Mom, Halloween 1999. Mom made me that Sgt. Pepper costume!

My mom was given two options: a mastectomy or a lumpectomy (at the time, doctors didn’t know she had a BRCA mutation.) Either option would require chemotherapy and radiation.

She opted for the lumpectomy. Her first round of chemotherapy was on January 17th, 2000. By December of 2000, her mammograms were clear.

Where was I in all of this? I’m not really sure. I have no recollection of the moment she told me she was sick. Apparently she sat me down and explained, as best she could to someone who would prefer to ride a bike than to talk about medical problems, that she was ill but she was getting treatment and would be okay in the end. After she was done talking, I asked for a cup of tea.

Either I absorbed the news so well that I was going to reflect on it with a nice cup of Earl Grey, or I had no idea what to do with the information and was looking to change the subject.

One day we went shopping for wigs. It was a lot of fun, but boy, was it overwhelming. There was so many styles. At the time, my mom’s hair was a curly ash brown, styled in a short, almost cropped cut. But the wig she picked wasn’t like her hair at all: it was auburn, a shoulder-length bob. And she never actually wore it–why did we pick it?

“Why?” Those were the type of questions I remember.

“Why is your mom bald?” That was the worst one, my most vivid memory of my mom’s breast cancer. I was in my fourth grade class giving a presentation about animal abuse. I’d invited a local newspaper columnist who wrote about animals to speak to the class. My parents were so proud of me; they came to watch my presentation and to meet the columnist.

Mom wore a green, flowery dress that touched the floor and a purple knit hat. It was obvious that she had no hair: even the shortest of cuts would have had at least some strands poking out the back. The hat was a way of protecting the rest of the world from cancer, of shielding the problem and letting everyone ignore it.

So when a boy named Michael asked why my mom was bald, I was taken aback. Didn’t he know he wasn’t supposed to ask that kind of question? Had his parents not taught him any manners? What was his deal?!

I don’t remember how I answered him. I’m sure I said something snarky.

That incident was honestly the most traumatic breast cancer-related moment of my childhood. By the time fifth grade started, breast cancer seemed like a thing of the past. Mom was done with chemo and radiation, her hair was growing back, life had resumed as normal. Breast cancer, it seemed, had only been a minor hiccup.