Alyssa Eilers was one of roughly 10,000 people in the crowd of pink T-shirts and ribbons at Baton Rouge’s annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on Saturday. Unlike many in the race, who were 20, 30 and even 40-year survivors of breast cancer, Eilers, 29, is new to the fight that is now very personal to her.
She had a double mastectomy two weeks ago.
But Eilers’ ordeal leading up to the surgery showed her “how many people truly love you and will help you,” she said — so she was determined to return the favor at the race on Saturday.
In its 19-year history, Race for the Cure has grown to be one of the largest 5K runs in town, but many people who come aren’t hard-core runners. Some are there to celebrate their own victory over breast cancer. Others run or walk in honor of someone else.
Angela Miller, executive director of Komen Baton Rouge, said the race is primarily a fundraiser for the organization’s research and outreach efforts. Because it brings together so many survivors of cancer, the race also offers encouragement to current patients.
“They can see women that are 10 and 15, 20, 25 years post-diagnosis, and I think it offers them a lot of hope,” she said.
Some women return year after year to meet up with friends they’ve made at past races, Miller said. While the 5K didn’t begin until about 9 a.m., people started showing up as early as 6 a.m. to visit one another — and in true Louisiana style, start cooking.
Kathy Lockhart’s family was cooking gumbo they planned to hand out after racers crossed the finish line. It’s something they do every year, Lockhart said, because the people at the race are like a second family. She has been to every one since her diagnosis 19 years ago.
Many participants said celebrating is a key part of the race. Before the 5K started, survivors marched through the crowd, holding signs indicating how long it’s been since they were diagnosed. Survivors like Theresa Martin, 53, brought along pink beads and stuffed animals to throw to bystanders.
As children stood close to the survivors’ march to catch beads, a few women were further back on the sidelines with tissues, crying. Remembering those who lost their battle is part of the race, too.
Breast cancer survival rates have improved by about 30 percent in the past 30 years, Miller said, largely thanks to funding from Susan G. Komen chapters.
“It’s important that we continue the work, continue the fight, and we’re only able to do that through the fundraising,” Miller said. Race organizers set a goal of raising $185,000 this year.
Komen Baton Rouge spent $3.4 million on education, screenings, treatments and survivor support in 2014.
Susan Landry, a 22-year survivor at the race, said people should realize that breast cancer can affect anyone, even if the young. She was 33 years old when she was diagnosed.
Early detection is important, Landry said, especially because there are better treatment options available today. She has been coming to the race ever since she began treatments, and “there’s a lot of good company,” she said.
Some race attendees became friends as patients at Mary Bird Perkins – Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, which was at one time was the only place in Baton Rouge that offered radiation treatments, Landry said.
“If someone’s not here, you know they’re gone,” said Audrey Joseph, another 22-year survivor of breast cancer. “It’s like a family.”
Joseph started coming to the race when her niece, Ann Harris, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25. Harris died of the disease — as did Joseph’s aunt and two of her sisters.
Joseph, 74, has beaten breast cancer twice — 22 years ago and again this past May.
For Eilers, who is just beginning her journey as a survivor, it’s comforting to know there are stories like Joseph’s here in Baton Rouge.
“It’s almost emotionally overwhelming,” Eilers said, “to see so many people who have gone through the same thing as you and so many people who don’t have it but support you.”