Thousands of people are gearing up for the Komen Wichita Race for the Cure on Saturday, making this race one of the largest nonprofit fundraising events in the state of Kansas.
Organizers at the Mid-Kansas Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure said they are anticipating the biggest turnout ever, already projected to beat last year's 7,776 registered participants. The organization's goal is 10,000 racers.
"We couldn't do what we do without them. It's as simple as that," Christina Osbourn, executive director for the Mid-Kansas Affiliate, said of the runners. "Everyone has come together to help us get closer to a world without breast cancer, and for that, we say a big thank you."
It takes all kinds of participants to make a successful race. Last year, 564 breast cancer survivors registered for the race, underscoring Komen's mission to eradicate the disease and spread hope.
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While an estimated 192,370 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to occur among women this year, the five-year survival rate — when caught early, before it spreads beyond the breast — is 98 percent, compared with 74 percent in 1982, Komen officials said.
"That means that what we're doing really does matter," Osbourn said. "We're turning patients into survivors. The disease is not a life sentence."
The bulk of race participants are survivors and their friends, relatives and coworkers. But not every racer has a direct link to breast cancer. Some are runners who simply love an exciting community event. Others are corporate sponsors who want to give back to their community.
Today, we profile four kinds of racers: the survivor, the family member, the athlete and the corporate sponsor. All run for different reasons, but they have one goal in common: to support a good cause and make a difference.
If there was ever a moment to take commitment to the ultimate level, it happened in 2006 for Anna Sandell, whose digital mammography picked up an easy-to-miss abnormality that eventually became breast cancer.
For nearly three years, Sandell, a registered nurse who is director of medical surgical services at Wesley Medical Center, waited and watched, diligently having her breasts checked and rechecked, refusing to take for granted what she knew was a matter of life or death.
Last year, that holding pattern changed when the abnormality in her breast changed. A series of biopsies culminated in December with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and Sandell set to work gathering her cancer care team and reviewing her options.
Although the cancer was self-contained, Sandell decided to go for a bilateral mastectomy, not wanting to take chances with cancer cells metastasizing to her other breast and beyond, as was the case with an aunt who died of the disease.
"I just didn't want to take that chance," Sandell said. "For me, it was, 'I want to live.' "
Today, Sandell, 46, is still undergoing reconstructive surgeries, but she's alive and no traces of cancer have been found anywhere else. And she is more passionate than ever about the first thing that most certainly saved her life: early detection.
"Stay on top of your appointments, go get those mammos," said Sandell, who lives in Wellington with her husband, Mike. "I do not hesitate to talk to people about that, whether it's with my peers, my employees or patients. It's about education, sharing my story and providing hope."
Sandell said she learned about Komen while attending support groups and sharing stories with other cancer patients and survivors. "Almost every lady talked about how rewarding it is," she said.
Sandell researched the organization and in February, after returning to work following surgery, she and coworker Francie Ekengren, Wesley's chief medical officer, who is battling breast cancer herself, decided it was time to pump up Team Wesley.
"Wesley (officials) said they have the opportunity to get behind us and would I be interested in being one of the faces," Sandell said. "I said absolutely — I'll do whatever I can do. I know how much I've been helped by others. I don't hesitate about making a difference."
On Saturday, Team Wesley will boast at least 80 walkers with a goal of raising $150,000. So far, they've raised more than $112,000.
"Our hope is that someday we can manage to live without breast cancer," Sandell said. "We'll continue fighting the good fight."
The family member
Wendy Harms has never had breast cancer, but she battles the disease almost every day.
A mammogram technologist for 20 years, with another 10 years as a radiation oncology technologist who helped treat people with cancer, Harms has seen first-hand the benefits of early detection. She experiences almost daily the barrage of questions, emotions and responses from women on the brink of a life-changing experience.
And then her own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"My mom has survived more than anybody I know," said Harms, 54, of Newton, who works for Anatomi Imaging. "She has always been the person you can count on, always there to help. I'm very proud of her."
Harms' mom, Mary Z. Parks, survived her breast cancer ordeal 17 years ago. She's 82 now and can't walk very well, but — while she's currently dealing with leukemia — she's as lucid and engaged as ever and puts in hundreds of hours of volunteer work every year.
It's people like her mother who energize Harms when it comes to breast health and education. Education, Harms has learned, changes everything.
"I think when people are more educated on what can help and what's going on, they handle everything better," she said. "Know why you're having a mammogram. If you think you're going in for biopsies, find out what kind. Know what's happening. It's your body; you're in charge."
Harms has been involved with Komen causes for several years now, but she hasn't participated in the Race for the Cure before. For a few years, she volunteered in the organization's Mobile Mammo van. But this year, she decided it was time to walk.
"I decided this year I'm going to do the race," Harms said. "Two reasons: One, for my mother, and the other because of an e-mail I received that had a picture of a little girl with a T-shirt on that said, 'Please cure breast cancer before I get boobs.' I just had a granddaughter this year, and that just really struck me."
When it comes to running, Raquel Stucky is no novice. At least once a year, she runs a major marathon — New York, Boston and, this January, Phoenix. She trains doggedly, rising at 6 a.m. and letting few things distract her from her goal of beating her own time and staying in shape.
But this weekend Stucky is taking a planned detour, choosing to run the 3.1-mile course for the Komen Wichita Race for the Cure on Saturday — not because she's dealing with breast cancer herself or running on someone's behalf, but because it's the right thing to do.
"It's totally inspirational," said Stucky, 35, who lives in Pretty Prairie with her husband and two daughters and who works at First Gear, a running specialty store in Wichita. "I'm a female and there's always a chance for that. Komen is a good cause. It's a good cause for women, period."
Komen officials said they understand why the race is a draw for athletes who care. Breast cancer experts recommend a healthy diet with plenty of exercise to help lessen cancer risks.
"For athletes, a healthy lifestyle is really important and it makes a lot of sense that we have an athletic event, because we encourage daily exercise and maintaining a healthy weight," said Osbourn, the local Komen official. "Having athletes there is an important educational message."
Stucky said she loves the Komen race environment, the inspiration that survivors bring and the dedication of thousands of volunteers and participants.
"People are gathered to celebrate something more than just going for a 5K run," said Stucky, who has two daughters she hopes one day won't have to deal with the threat of breast cancer.
"Anytime you gather that many people to support a cause, it feels great," she said. "It's hard to describe, but when you're an athlete and you accomplish something, and when you're a breast cancer patient and you made it to your next milestone, I want to say they both feel exhilarated with that same accomplished feeling."
The corporate sponsor
Some of Race for the Cure's biggest supporters come in the form of corporate goodwill. Komen officials say the benefits are many, not only because the company itself gets positive exposure, but because participation builds employee morale and demonstrates the company's commitment to the community.
"It's an easy way for people to get behind something together," Osbourn said. "Companies are really looking to be a part of a strong community event. We're lucky to be that organization."
Employees at Johnson Controls are so enthusiastic about the race, they've turned Johnson into one of Komen's strongest supporters, raising more than $100,000 for cancer research. Employee relations manager Marty Leppke helped make that happen.
Outside of work, Leppke has been a volunteer for Wichita's Race for the Cure for years. About three years ago, she approached her boss, Steve Donowick, and recommended that the heating and air conditioning company get on board as a sponsor and supporter of the event.
At the time, the company made a donation and a few dozen employees participated. Leppke knew they could do better.
So she suggested that Johnson Controls offer to pay half the $25 registration fee for any employee who wanted to participate in the race. Her boss agreed. The company went a step further this year and granted time off on race day for employees registered to participate.
Interest among Johnson Control's 1,100 Wichita employees rose. Last year employees from the company's Oklahoma City office drove to Wichita to join in the fun. The company upped its sponsorship.
"This allows employees to get involved in the community and be part of something good," Leppke said. "We were finding employees weren't participating as much in the same old stuff we had been doing every year. Then we brought this in, and all of a sudden, the response is overwhelming. People are just so happy to do something."
Leppke said the first year, the company had about 25 people participate. Last year, it was about 60. Today, there are more than 100 participants in the race and interest still is growing.
She credits employees such as Monique Gomez, whose personal experience with breast cancer — an aunt died of the disease — has motivated her to sign up participants this year, helping the company raise more than $113,000 toward its $150,000 goal.
"She has made it one of her life goals to help find a cure through getting people in there," Leppke said.
Johnson Controls, a Komen Silver Sponsor — a donation of $2,500 to the cause — has provided every race participant with a free T-shirt and is holding a cookout on Wednesday where organizers will sell leftover T-shirts to nonparticipating employees and donate the proceeds to Komen.
The company will take new registrations until Friday.