Reporter's Notebook: Tales From the Breast Cancer 3-Day Trail

The last time I was camping with thousands of people while a band played on a distant stage was in 1994, at the Woodstock 25th anniversary weekend in Saugerties, N.Y.

My two sisters and I slept the first night on a hillside under the stars without a tent. On the second night, when the event had deteriorated into a chaotic, frightening, rainy disaster, my sisters and I hiked shoeless about a mile through the knee-deep mud to watch Aerosmith (search) perform at 4 a.m.

I was reminded of that weekend on Saturday night as I settled down to sleep in a pup tent in a field on the sprawling campus of Montgomery County College (search) in Blue Bell, Pa., surrounded by 2,000 walkers participating in the Philadelphia Susan G. Komen Foundation’s 60-mile Breast Cancer 3-Day.

The event, a "walk for the cure" in which participants walk 20 miles a day and camp out overnight, raised $6 million for breast cancer research and awareness.

While I was with my sisters in Saugerties, I was alone Saturday night, missing terribly my 2-year-old daughter, and very aware that most of the campers around me were there because they no longer had their sisters or daughters — or mothers, grandmothers, aunts and friends — at all.

Eleven years ago in Saugerties, the highlight of the Woodstock redux for me was watching Melissa Etheridge (search) play on a stage high above the mud pits. Etheridge is battling breast cancer.

These are not very profound observations, just very true ones.

But other than the sea of tents, the dancing crowd and the lights and sounds from the stage, there was little similarity between the events. Saugerties was a catastrophe, while the Breast Cancer 3-Day was an extraordinary feat of expert planning, organization and logistical engineering executed with stopwatch precision.

When you have 2,000 people from all over the country trekking 60 miles in honor of loved ones who have battled cancer, the organizing of the walk does not seem like much of a story. But if you are one of the weary walkers, it means everything.

There was plenty of good food, plenty of water, plenty of informed, enthusiastic, tireless volunteer staffers telling you what to do and where to go and helping you do it and get there. Hot showers were provided in giant tractor trailers. The portable bathrooms were about as clean as portable bathrooms can be expected to be. Even the pup tents were erected in precise, neat rows.

Despite the grueling physical challenge of walking the 3-Day, participating was a lot like being part of a traveling carnival or parade. The music, dancing and food are just part of it. At pit stops every three miles along the route, music blasted from giant speakers and food and drinks were dispensed from beneath giant tents while walkers stretched out on the grass to eat and socialize.

Crowds large and small, some people wearing costumes, would gather at points along the route to cheer on the walkers. There was so much food along the route, I was sure that I was actually gaining weight as I walked.

But what really captured the spirit of celebration were the Mardi Gras-inspired costumes: Wigs, lace, ribbons, sequins, homemade hats, beads, wings, wreaths of flowers, bras put to amazingly creative use — all pink.

At first it seemed appropriate that an event staged to fight death would be one infused with such life. But then I realized that the costumes — the shocking shades of pink, the lacy, Barbie Doll-exaggerated girliness of the motifs — were caricatures of femininity, mocking a disease that attacks a part of the body uniquely invested with female identity and mythology.

'Life Resume'

In the last mile or so leading to camp Saturday, I struck up a conversation with Donna Swartz, a woman in her mid-30s, about my age, from Doylestown, Pa. We discussed the challenges of working motherhood, how the demands of earning a paycheck and raising a family make it so easy to lose sight of the world beyond your job and your kids.

"I knew I worked hard and did a good job and was raising my kids, but I was concerned about what impact I was leaving on the world," she said. "I started to think about my 'life resume' — not my work resume but my 'life resume.' What have I really done in my life?"

Swartz said she was walking for a sense of personal achievement but admitted she needed the motivation of a good cause. She was inspired to walk by a male friend with leukemia who biked 100 miles to raise money for that disease.

"I can't bike 100 miles, but I can walk," she said. "This was something I could do."

Swartz' team, Bosom Buddies, was headed by Maureen, a one-year breast cancer survivor, a few steps ahead of us. As we entered camp and crossed the line signifying we had officially completed mile 20 for that day, another member of her team — a fit woman with long curly hair who looked as if she'd just stepped out of the shower and may, in fact, have been wearing makeup — did a cartwheel.

Sunday started at 5:37 a.m., when, after dressing by flashlight, I proudly disassembled my tent in the dark. Much later that morning, on a trail along the Schuykill River just outside Chestnut Hill, Pa., Barb from Hatterboro, Pa., told me about her three 20-something daughters. They are impressive young women — an artist, a writer and a scientist — and their mother proudly detailed their every accomplishment.

Two years ago, Barb had a scare, a calcification in her breast that turned out to be benign. She had several friends who weren't so lucky. She is still tortured, she said, by the fear of being taken from her kids. It's the one thing she can't quite get over, she said, that mother-fear of leaving your kids in the world without you.

When I was leaving for the walk, my daughter clung to my leg screaming: "I come, Mommy! I come, Mommy!" Since she was born, I've had to admit to myself that my worst fear may not be that something will happen to her, but that something will happen to me. I'm never sure which scenario I fear more. I am sure that having to confront that fear would drive me insane.

Jason and Rachel

I was barely on the walk when I actually got a story tip. A husband-and-wife team told me I should find and interview a guy named Jason who was walking in memory of his fiancee, Rachel. Late on the final day, with only a few miles to go, I spotted Jason in the distinctive "F*** Cancer" T-shirt I'd been told he was wearing.

Jason was a handsome 30-year-old, and the story of his relationship with Rachel — who was dying from cervical cancer for the duration of their three-year love affair — was heartbreaking and harrowing.

"I didn't come away bitter at all; I feel like I was given this incredible life lesson," Jason said, repeatedly calling Rachel his "inspiration."

Jason said he liked talking about Rachel, but I wasn't sure if he understood why. People in love talk about the object of their affection as a way of conjuring their presence, of feeling close to them when they are not nearby. Talking is also a way of making the unreal and unfathomable become real.

Rachel has been gone only a year, and when Jason said he was grateful to have "encapsulated her in this perfect little romantic story," I wondered if it has occurred to him that theirs was anything but a perfect story, that a perfect story would have him and Rachel spending their lives together, having children together. I hope, for his sake, that if this hasn't occurred to him yet, it never does.

At some point in the conversation, I stopped taking notes. I wasn't crying. It was more like my bones had suddenly doubled in weight.

"You may need to take a moment for yourself," Jason said.

The final miles of the walk took us from the funky Mannayunk section of Philadelphia into the vast and winding Fairmount Park. As we entered the last half mile or so, a man wearing a giant Uncle Sam hat appeared on the route. He was holding a sign that read "Please Come Home Now. We're Starving."

The women on the route went crazy for his sign and rushed up to him, posing for pictures. Not far ahead, many of their husbands and kids were waiting to take them home. As we crossed the finish line, the cheers were deafening. Before they could even sit down, many of the women were hoisting babies and toddlers onto their hips. The husbands wore expressions of unmitigated relief.

Maybe, like Uncle Sam's family, they'd also starved over the weekend.

But that was the whole point of the Breast Cancer 3-Day. According to the Komen Foundation, in 2005, 40,410 women won't be coming home.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Since October 2004, has published more than 65 stories on breast cancer. To read these stories, click on the Related Stories box above.