It seems a completely unfortunate paradox that such a horrible thing can unite so many people together, forging a bond and understanding never to be broken even under the most daunting of conditions. I speak of course, of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer.
Days after I walked across the stage (need I add it was the same stage the Backstreet Boys performed on last summer…) to receive my High School diploma, I found myself crossing an entirely different finish line: the 39.3 mile mark at the end of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. My team screamed and cheered as our aching feet landed under the inflatable pink archway that marked our accomplishment.
For months leading up to the event, my entire life seemed to be dedicated the Avon Chicago 2009. I stayed awake extra hours each night, putting finishing touches on confetti cupcakes with glittery pink ribbon frosting or slicing brownies to put into individual papers. I sent out envelope after envelope, had a never-ending list of phone calls to make, and traveled across the city in search of donations from businesses. My last months of school were filled with baked goods and secret money exchanges during class, only to be busted by teachers trying to “teach” (second semester seniors, people, seriously…) who would subsequently enjoy a mini-monologue about how one in ten women will get breast cancer, every three minutes a woman is diagnosed, et cetera et cetera until they finally ignored the deliberate rule-breaking. My team hosted a local dinner event at a restaurant, a silent auction, a weekend garage sale, and more events which brought us closer to our fundraising goals. When I wasn’t trying to raise money, I found myself lacing up my sneakers and trekking out to the Botanic Gardens/ Country Club/ Lincoln Park Zoo on 5, 8, 15+ mile training walks.
After not sleeping all night due to an irresolute combination of nerves and excitement, on the morning of June 6th, I woke up at the crack of dawn, dressed head to toe in sweatproof clothing, and walked to Soldier Field. There, my team met up (near a dog) by the breakfast tent, indulging in multiple granola bars and bananas. We lethargically marched towards the enormous inflatable pink Avon pillars; we stretched as a group to a warm-up powered by remixed 90’s workout music; we listened to disheartening facts about Breast Cancer, reminding us why the walk was important and what we hoped to accomplish.
The first moment that made me realize how outstanding this weekend would be was when the coordinator asked to the 3200 walkers, how many of us had come alone? A large faction of hands shot up into the air and I was shocked that anybody would decide to do this independently. I was impressed, inspired, and motivated, common sentiments through my entire weekend.
As we starting walking down Lake Michigan, cars on Lake Shore Drive constantly honked and shouted at us, strangers smiled, and I met interesting walking companions while each step I took lead to the stamping out of breast cancer. As we walked through the various Chicago neighborhoods: Hispanic, Polish, WASPs, Jewish, Black, cutesy, rundown, touristy—everything—, I was astonished at how people reacted, emerging from homes and storefronts cheering loudly, offering high-fives and candy, providing us with endless “Thank yous” and making the walk ever more important to me.
One of the Avon mottos is “For 2 days, we walk as 1.” I always thought it was some type of cheesy t-shirt slogan, a cute tagline to get people involved in the cause, yet I never really considered the possibilities. This weekend, I realized how even the most diverse group of people manage to unite completely, work together, to accomplish a universally meaningful goal. I was blown away at the thought that went into the event, from the themed rest stops complete with Porta Potty trivia to the cheering squads constantly circling in vans, blasting music, and never losing any enthusiasm. I smiled when a random man off the street shouted a sincere “God bless you all!” when a pimply teenager held up a sign reading, “Big or small, save them all,” and especially when my friends came out at the end of the walk to cheer on the team. Because that’s what the Walk was all about—teamwork. It had nothing to do with my five other teammates but rather everybody else, everybody who was, is, or could be affected by such a terrible fate and the hope for the future. When people of all ethnicities, backgrounds, ages (17-76!), and experience join together as one, you know you really have something special.
Avon’s other charming phrase, “Ready. Set. Hope,” left a lasting impression on me this weekend. Every step of the walk was empowering—I was truly making a different, along with thousands of other people who cared deeply about the cause; I was making people’s lives better; I was taking action. Upon entering the campsite at 26.2 miles on the first night, I could barely move. I begged my legs not to crumble as I showered in a truck, begged my back not to break as I slept on the floor, and begged my feet to support me as I miraculously woke up in one piece the next day. Upon crossing the finish line, I found myself almost stunned by my abilities. As my team linked arms and walked our last steps under the pink arch, I questioned myself, unsure that I had really accomplished what I seemed to have accomplished.
There are some “life-changing” events that barely make an impact on your future. This was as far from that as possible. Every second of the Avon Walk made me want to be a better person, to try harder, to strive further for my goals. The Walk showed me how lucky I am, how grateful I should be, and how much I can give back to my community. I heard tales of women who walked the 40 miles only weeks after a mastectomy, of men who lost fiancés days before their wedding and formed teams to remember their lost loves, of pregnant women finding lumps and of women who walked for years during chemotherapy only to die a terribly unjust death. The tragedies continue on and on, bring us to tears, yet we must remember that there is so much change possible, so much improvement we can all bring to the world, if we literally all step up.
The entire weekend was astoundingly strenuous—both physically and emotionally. My physical pain felt temporarily alleviated and my emotional pain completely displayed when the Survivors paraded in for the closing ceremony. Tears flew from my neighbors as we watched these incredibly strong women march between us, some perfectly healthy looking and others unfortunately struggling. As stunned as I was with my 40 mile accomplishment, I could not even begin to process the challenges this weekend brought to these valiant women. It brought me a new hope to see so many survivors, smiling and proud, and ready for the challenges ahead.
In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product.” I did not embark on the Avon Walk in order to feel happy or even accomplished. I felt it almost an obligation, a challenge I was capable of conquering. And beyond any of my doubts, I did. I learned so much about myself and the world in these two short days that I know I am forever changed. I will wear my Avon shirts with pride, share a sisterhood with my fellow thousands of Avon walkers, and hopefully continue to participate in the event. I never intended to love the walk as much as I did, yet I truly fell in love with the cause, the people, the opportunity.
After going all the way to save second base, I can assure you that the inevitable pressures of training to walk 40 miles and raise $1800 were undoubtedly worth the effort.