Women to walk 60 miles for breast cancer research

Local residents will participate in the 60-mile, three-day walk to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the National Philanthropic Trust.

By: Linda Seida
   LAMBERTVILLE — There was a time when Carol Annmarie Sassman-Kraus was devastated by the thought of losing her straight blond hair.
   "The minute you lose your hair, you become a victim, and everybody knows," she said.
   A bald head would tell everyone she was fighting breast cancer. Hair loss is a common side effect of the chemotherapy used to treat the disease.
   Ms. Sassman-Krause, whose friends call her Cami, swore she would never appear in public without a head covering, and she didn’t. Not until one evening when she and her husband, Richard Kraus, were dining in the Lambertville Station. That night, the chemo had turned her body’s thermostat up to full blast, and she just couldn’t stand it anymore.
   "I felt like a human furnace," she said. "I whipped the hat off."
   It wasn’t long before she noticed two elderly gentlemen sitting across the dining room.
   "One man kept staring and staring at me," Ms. Sassman-Kraus recalled.
   Finally he ambled over and asked if he could say something to her. Ms. Sassman-Kraus, 52, felt nervous and uneasy. That victim feeling began creeping in, but only until the man began speaking.
   "My wife had breast cancer," she recalled him saying. "And I’ve got to tell you, you look beautiful, just like she did. She beat it, and you will, too."
   He told her he’d keep her in his prayers.
   Another day, there was a young man whose dress indicated he frequented the grunge or punk scene.
   "You look good like that," he said, confiding he, too, knew someone who had battled breast cancer. "She beat the shit out of it, and you will, too."
   Still later, she and her husband went to the shore. Three different women stopped her.
   "They said, ‘I’m 10 years out,’ and ‘I’m seven years out,’ and ‘I’m six years out,’" Ms. Sassman-Kraus said.
   Today, four years later, she is in remission, and her hair has grown back. It’s curlier now, not straight as it had always been. It’s no longer blond, but a darker shade.
   "I’ve got this big head of hair, and I don’t have a clue" how to make it behave, she said with a laugh.
   Ms. Sassman-Kraus looks back now on the people she met because they noticed her bald head and came up to her to offer encouragement. She calls them her "blessings."
   She calls herself a survivor, but she calls others warriors. She chokes up as she talks about them, one in particular.
   "I have a good friend who’s dying from breast cancer," she said, declining to name the woman for privacy reasons, saying only that she has children. For nine years, her friend has battled the disease.
   "She wants to hang on until the girls finish high school," Ms. Sassman-Kraus said, "She’s just the epitome of bravery and love in my eyes. I look up to her."
   Before her own diagnosis in 2001, Ms. Sassman-Kraus had regular mammograms that said she was fine. Between mammograms, she discovered a lump. Her doctor checked her most recent mammogram to see if he’d missed something. He hadn’t.
   "That’s how fast it can come up," Ms. Sassman-Kraus said. "That’s frightening."
   Women seem to compound the problem by not going to the doctor as soon as they suspect something might be wrong, she said.
   Ms. Sassman-Kraus waited several months to discuss the problem with her doctor. She was frightened, yes, but she also was dealing with the hospitalization of her mother, who was injured in a fall and later died. So she devoted those months to her care.
   Most women wait even longer.
   "The normal waiting time for women is six months, that’s what my doctor told me," Ms. Sassman-Kraus said. "We’re so frightened, and we’re so in denial. But the more you know about it, the less frightened you are."
   To promote education, research and a cure, Ms. Sassman-Kraus has joined with several other women to form a team whose purpose is to raise money for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the National Philanthropic Trust. The two organizations have joined together to initiate the Breast Cancer 3-Day, a series of three-day, 60-mile walks they hope will raise millions of dollars.
   Eighty-five percent of the net proceeds will go to the Komen Foundation to support breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment programs. Fifteen percent will go to the National Philanthropic Trust Breast Cancer Fund, an endowment, which will ensure the cause receives long-term, continuing support irrespective of gifting activities in years to come.
   Twelve 3-Day walks are scheduled across the country in 2005. The Philadelphia 3-Day will begin Friday, Sept. 23, and end with closing ceremonies Sunday, Sept. 25.
   Joining Ms. Sassman-Kraus in training for the Philadelphia 3-Day are her cousin, Helen Piovesan, of Long Island, N.Y., Lambertville natives Cynthia Ege and Nadine Lopez, Melissa Parsons of West Amwell, Barbara Glackin of Bordentown, Kris Patten-Burd of Ewing and Hilda Kalisch of Ewing. Many of the women have trained together for the past several months.
   They’ve dubbed their team LIPS, an acronym for Lambertville Invincible Pink Squad. They wear white T-shirts emblazoned with the acronym and a pair of huge lips in neon pink, and are selling similar T-shirts for the cost of a donation. They’ve even walked through Lambertville on a training session holding a sign that says, "LIPS," which encouraged questions, allowing them to get the word out.
   Each participant must pledge to raise a minimum of $2,100. Some of women already have reached that goal while others still are trying.
   To help raise funds, the women sold LIPS T-shirts at the Shad Festival, raising $1,300. On Aug. 6, they’ll hold an open house with wine, cheese and sweets, and sell candles for $6 each. Information about the 3-Day will be available.
   "I’m more than happy to answer any questions," Ms. Sassman-Kraus said. "Or, if someone has breast cancer and wants to talk, I’m more than happy to give them the benefit of my experience. I’m always available for that."
   Ms. Sassman-Kraus recalled the help she received from a younger woman, a friend of one of her children who had breast cancer and took the time to talk with Ms. Sassman-Kraus after her own diagnosis.
   "It helps if you talk to somebody who’s been there," Ms. Sassman-Kraus said. "When you first hear about it, you’re devastated. You think you’re going to die. She gave me hope and encouragement. I didn’t feel quite so desperate and so alone."
   Her LIPS teammate, Ms. Lopez, lost two close relatives to breast cancer. She’s doing the 60-mile walk, 20 miles each day, "in memory of my mom and my aunt and in support of the women in my family," she said, thinking a minute before adding with a laugh, "anybody out there with boobs."
   Ms. Lopez said the team will try to keep a sense of humor through each step of the 60 miles. She’s looking forward to Ms. Sassman-Kraus’ promise to bring big, red, wax lips.
   "You need a sense of humor," she said. "We’re really doing dorky stuff. I think there’ll be a lot of tears, too."
   Mrs. Ege, too, is using the walk to honor a friend, Donna Gazzillo, who lost her battle with the disease. The two women grew up in Lambertville, but didn’t form a close bond of friendship until they were older. Mrs. Gazzillo was godmother to one of Mrs. Ege’s sons.
   "When my feet hurt from walking, or I simply don’t feel like training, I think of my good friend who died several years ago from cancer," Mrs. Ege said. "I miss her smile, her laugh and the stories she shared about her daughter. I think of one of my best friends and others in our community who are recovering from their treatments for breast cancer. And I think about the last four years and the biannual screenings I’ve experienced, and I worry that this time my number may be up."
   Donations may be made online directly to any team member’s donation page at www.The3Day.org. To volunteer, visit the same Web site or call (800) 996-3DAY.
   The open house Aug. 6 will be held at Ms. Sassman-Kraus’ house, 139 N. Union St., from 6 to 10 p.m.
   For more information, contact Ms. Sassman-Kraus at [email protected] or 397-9159 or Mrs. Ege at [email protected] or 397-4574.