My 3-Day Avon Walk
by Debbie Van De Reit
August 17, 2001

My dear friends, family, co-workers, and donors,

Well, the Seattle Avon 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk is over and with it goes one awesome experience. There is no way I could tell you all of the events that have become life-long memories for me, but please let me share just a few of the highlights. Yes, this letter is lengthy but trust me, so were the miles! teehee

First, I must say a heartfelt “Thank you” for your generous donations. Through your gifts, I was able to raise over $4200 for the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade. It was so exciting for me to receive your donations in all the various ways they came to me. I received money from childhood friends, from relatives, from co-workers both present and past, from some folks whom I’ve just become acquainted with, and from a number of people I’ve never even met. Each and every dollar was greatly appreciated.

Though this may seem odd, I believe my most inspirational day was on Day Zero. This was the day that all walkers and crew members would register for the event, watch a mandatory safety video, turn in all final pledges, get our tent assignments and pay a rental fee for towels. This process took about 3 hours.

I was supposed to volunteer and help assign tents all afternoon, but a box of brochures in my car was calling me. During my training time, I had become involved in the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation and had about 700 brochures in my car for me to distribute. I bailed on the “tent assigning”, and began greeting each person in every line with a brochure and my quick speech about IBC. It was pretty awesome helping to spread the word about the most progressive, most deadly, and most misdiagnosed type of breast cancer. I was in my element in this role and thrilled to potentially be making a difference for someone there that day. You’ll note that I’ve included a brochure with this letter.

I should mention at this point that on Day Zero, I was wrapped in “my shirt of many colors”. You see, I had spent hours embroidering a denim shirt with the names of women and men whose lives had been affected by breast cancer. Those who have passed away were written in blue and purple. Those currently fighting the disease were stitched in yellow and light green, and survivors were obviously, in pink. I remember how I felt when the shirt was finished and I slipped it on. I wept. I wept for those 164 people whose names were now surrounding me. I wept in thanks that no one in my world today had their name on my shirt and I prayed a prayer of praise for my cancer-free world.

My shirt brought me closer to the 3-Day, it brought me deeper to why I was there, and stronger in my belief this event was not about walking – but instead it was about awareness, communication, and elimination of this disease from our world. It was about people and their lives and their struggles with breast cancer. My shirt took me to a different place that day, and I look forward to where it will take me next.

With respect to walking, here’s a quick scenario:

Enumclaw to Auburn – Day 1 brought the hottest day of the year and the longest mileage. 22.5 miles in 91 degree weather. People were dropping like flies. I drank 16oz of water and 16oz of Gatorade with every passing mile and was not affected by the heat at all. The problem I did have though, was devastating to me – blisters bigger than life itself! I’d suffered with blisters most of my training but really thought I had them under control. Four pairs of shoes, numerous types of socks, hundreds of dollars spent on blister prevention supplies, all in vain. Mile 18 and my blisters said, “You’re done for today.” I took the shuttle bus into camp very unhappy.

Auburn to Renton – Day 2 brought painful steps and the reality and necessity of deciding whether to continue to walk Day 2 or stop and give the blisters some healing time and walk on Day 3. I chose the latter. I knew at that point, I couldn’t do both because of the state of my feet. Again, it was heartbreaking. I chose to stop about mile 5, went to the finish line, spent a wonderful day with my mom cheering in all the walkers as they finished the day’s miles of 19.5. As I dressed the blisters that night, I realized how bad they really were. I was incredibly disappointed but remained determined I would walk into Seattle the next day.

Renton to Seattle – Day 3 brought more painful steps and a strange buzzing on the side of my heel, but I was headed for Seattle. The blister pain linked me in a small way to breast cancer patients who must suffer incredible pain at times. I walked with determination; not allowing any thoughts of stopping to get in the way of reaching the goal. Nothing was going to stop me – well, okay, except for the big hill at mile seven! So, what would you do if you came upon a bus that would shuttle folks to the top of the hill if you needed/wanted to? Okay, so did I! Well, they didn’t take us to the top of the hill but instead, took us to the last pit stop, which was at West Lake Mall downtown Seattle. A short walk of about 1.5 miles to the Space Needle and we were finally there. The victory walk and closing ceremonies were awesome.

I might not have walked all 60 miles, but I was “in the moment” for a full three days and four days if you count Day Zero. I had trained well, had no problem with endurance or discipline, just blisters. Without a moment’s hesitation, I will walk again next year. My podiatrist said she’d help me eliminate the blisters with a slower training pace, giving my feet a chance to toughen as the miles are increased. I’ve been home all week now, nursing two critical blisters, one with a type of staph infection, and pretty much unable to walk. In spite of it all, I have no regrets. I look forward to next August to walk the walk, the entire walk.

I mentioned earlier that I recognized early on that this event wasn’t about walking. But the walking created an environment to meet people and share some conversations. Some brief, some lengthy, but always meaningful. I remember walking with a lady named Nancy who didn’t have any hair due to her recent rounds of chemo. She was a bright, cheerful and positive person who relished in the sunshine, the beauty of the evergreen trees, and the majestic wonder of Mt. Rainier.

I believe the most inspirational group of ladies to me was the “Celebrating Mom” team. Four sisters who lost their mother to breast cancer about two years ago. As best I understand it, Mom had experienced two rounds of breast cancer and was considered a survivor twice. Then, the cancer returned a third time and had spread to her bones. From the third diagnosis to the end was only six weeks. Mom was a hospice nurse and provided beautiful hospice advice to her daughters and her grandchildren throughout her last days. I also saw their Dad along the trail. He came to the first stop with a great sign that was colorfully decorated with “Celebrating Mom”. One of the daughters I walked with carried the sign the entire way. I’m certain, as little as I know about this team, that their lives were blessed by being raised by “Mom”. I am equally as certain that Mom was blessed by these beautiful, respectful, and loving daughters. At closing ceremonies, I saw them all hugging each other and their dad. With tears flowing, I wept tears of sorrow for what they had and tears of joy what they continue to have.

The most shocking event was coming upon a young lady, probably in her mid 20’s who was wearing a swimming suit top with her walking shorts. She was moving along full speed, long strides and a determination that set her apart from the crowd. As she approached where I was, I saw that her halter top only covered one breast. Where the exposed breast would have been, there was a scar about 6″ diagonal. She had had breast cancer and a breast removed about a year ago. Proud of the woman she was and determined to help spread the news, she walked every step of the way exposing her absent breast and became a symbol to young ladies along the way – sending the message, it can happen to you.

There were many others – one lady that must have weighed about 400 lbs. She was walking because she’d lost her best friend to breast cancer. Her shoes were sandals with only about 1/2 inch of padding. They were duct taped to her feet. As I passed her, she asked me if I’d like to freshen my Cool Max Neck Band. Not to pass up an opportunity like that, I handed her the band. She plunged it into her bag of ice and cold water, give it a swish around and handed it back with a smile and best wishes for the walk. To me, it was a bit of heaven. To her, it was a simple act of kindness.

There were lots of older ladies walking, many with canes. I saw two older ladies, one on each side of a younger gal, helping her along the trail. Another special moment occurred when a group of us walkers suddenly came to a halt while walking around Lake Washington. Around the corner, hidden by a big willow tree, sat a 93 year old lady, a breast cancer survivor, who wanted to shake hands with every one of us. Amazing, absolutely amazing.

Oh, my gosh, I gotta tell you about climbing this long, nasty hill out of Buckley on Day 1. I had trained on hills and felt pretty good about my ability. I had learned to use the Lamaze breathing method and moved right up and over most of them. This hill was – well, some called it the Hope Hill – I called it Hell Hill! Anyway, half way up the hill, I had to step aside and rest. I was okay – just needed a few minutes to breathe to get to the top. Two ladies, probably mid-30’s, stopped and asked me if I was okay. Ensuring them that I was, they told me they intended to walk the rest of the way up the hill with me. Sounded fun, so off we went. It was then that I noticed they had each taken a place on both sides of me, each placed one hand on my shoulder blades and began to push me up the hill. It was incredible!! I was laughing so hard! They told me to quit laughing and keep walking. They were laughing hysterically. They said they had perfected this maneuver during their training and thanked me for letting them put it into practice during the walk. What fun that was!

Another hysterical moment came with some frustration when I got myself in a sticky situation. I had two water bottles that looked exactly the same. I always carried one water and one Gatorade in my fanny pack and carried another water in my hand. As the days grew warm, I would use the water in my hand to dump over my head to make sure I stayed cool. Okay – you already know what happened, don’t you. I can’t tell you how awful it was when I got mixed up and accidentally dumped Gatorade on my head instead of water!!! Thank goodness for the nice guy in his yard spraying water on the walkers – I was able to get it out of my hair and shirt before too many folks knew what I’d done! Gracious – it was really something!

The other time I got into a sticky situation, I made sure I had support along with me. It was Day 2, 9:30 at night, and a couple of us went over to the showers. Now, you have to understand the shower situation. There were about seven semi-trucks with 10 individual showers in each truck. Not entirely like 8th grade PE classes, but close. There was one shower truck set up near where we were camping so we walked carefully (remember my blisters??) over to that shower truck. A line of about 15 women was winding around the truck and we dutifully took our place in line. This particular truck was divided into two sections, one for men and one for women. Okay, ya get the picture – 15 women waiting in line and 0 men. Hmmmm. Well, here came a man out of the guys side of the truck. I simply asked him how many other men were in the shower. He said there were two others. Next man appeared – I asked him the same. He said there was just one more guy. The last man came out … no men around waiting … I simply invited the group of ladies around me to enter the sacred grounds and speed up the shower process!

Well, just at the point of “full disclosure”, a big booming male voice came through the door, harshly reminding us that this shower was for the men and we need to leave immediately. Some of the ladies were already in the shower and I figured if I left the truck immediately in my state of nakedness, the men waiting would probably run for their tents anyway, so what the heck! We all showered, left at the same time, smiled and thanked the one man waiting for his patience. He didn’t smile. Poor Guy!

To bring closure to this letter, I need to thank some people for helping me participate in this incredible event. First of all, Steve Frank, my manager at Weyerhaeuser, for allowing me to spend the time I needed to prepare for this event. It was greatly appreciated and Steve, I’ll catch up on my work fast!

To my Weyerhaeuser Walking team, for allowing me to be a co-leader and publicist for the group. You are an awesome group of ladies. Together we raised over $60,000 and held an impromptu Breast Cancer Awareness Week for Weyerhaeuser employees. You understood the deeper meaning of all this and that was very important to me. You were my team and I was proud to be one of your leaders.

To my friends and family and co-workers who sent cards, quotes, letters, voice mails, and emails to encourage me to continue on, you were my strength. Everything you did was so appreciated.

To Bob, Bee, and Owen Johnson of the Inflammatory Breast Cancer Research Foundation, you were my inspiration. For the loss of Bob and Bee’s daughter-in-law and Owen’s wife, Marilyn, who died of IBC, I am so sorry. At the same time, I salute you for your work in creating the research foundation. Thank you for embracing me and welcoming me into the IBC family without having the disease.

To my daughter Wanda, who ran our Embroidery business while I was out walking, walking, walking. For leading the effort to get almost 7,000 IBC brochures out to the Seattle community during the 3-Day walk. You understood how incredibly important this was to me and our cause, and helped me reach a very important goal. Thanks, honey.

To my friends Kathy, Carrie, Gail, and all the others who volunteered to pass out the Inflammatory Breast Cancer brochures along the trail and at closing ceremonies, you are so special. Thanks for giving of your time and thanks for being there for me.

To Anita, my Camp Fire Friend since 1966, for volunteering at Day Zero, for sending me off on Day 1 with a hug I’ll always keep close to me, and for constantly checking on me during the walk, ensuring I was okay each step of the way. I thank you for your medical knowledge and being tougher than me when I needed it most. Thank you, my friend.

Thanks to my mom for sitting with me during Day 2 when I wasn’t able to walk. It took my mind off the disappointment I could have wallowed in. We blew bubbles and clapped and cheered and made it a happy day instead! Thanks Mom, for making Day 2 fun for me.

To my wonderful podiatrist, Dr. Susan Scanlon, who helped me through my most difficult part of the walk – my blisters! Please know how much I appreciate you as my doctor, but even more, please know how much I admire you as a role model and as a friend. Thanks so very much. P.S. Your staff is wonderful also.

To my best friend, Benny, whom I have watched year after year run marathons, climb hundreds of flights of stairs, and bicycle from Seattle to Portland, my heartfelt thanks. I could NEVER have done this without your unsympathetic responses when I was whining about one ache or another, your relentless effort to search the internet for craziest, unconventional blister prevention tips that I never used, your insistence that I eat those nasty energy bars that look (and taste) like dog food, and your outright demands that I learn to drink Gatorade and something else that looked and tasted like car oil! With a friend like you – I now know, I can do anything. Yes, I can do anything now! Thank you, Benny, for believing in me from the first moment I said I’d walk, for coaching me and for even popping and dressing my nasty blisters week after week after week. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for helping me reach a goal that I never dreamed possible.

Finally, and most importantly, thanks to our Lord, Jesus Christ! Thanks for flattening the hills, for shortening the miles, for decreasing the heat, for allowing me to walk. Praise God – to Him be all the Glory,

Debbie Van De Riet
Seattle — 3-Day Walker