Wake County

Thousands of breast cancer survivors converge on RTP to race for a cure

Paige Walker is one of the newest inductees into the sorority of “pink sisters.” It was one year ago that Walker received her diagnosis: breast cancer.

In that time, she’s been through five surgeries, eight chemotherapy treatments and six weeks of daily blasts of radiation. Today she’s a grateful survivor and introduces herself a “radiation graduate.”

On Saturday, Walker, who lives in Wilmington and works as a sales rep for veterinary drugs, donned a pink graduation gown and mortarboard as she participated in her first Susan G. Komen Triangle Race for the Cure. With her rose-colored attire accented by a pair of cowboy boots, Walker stood out in a sea of pink T-shirts and pink tutus amid the pink sisterhood of thousands of breast cancer survivors and friends and relatives.

“There were tough days for certain,” Walker said of her ordeal. “We dug in, put on the cowboy boots, continued to fight and gave cancer the boot.”

Now in its 20th year, the Triangle race is an annual reunion, celebration, fundraising event and countdown to an eventual medical breakthrough that might one day render breast cancer impotent. As in past years, the survivors gathered center-stage and observed a moment of silence for their sisters claimed by the cancer.

A team of vintage military aircraft known as the Bandit Flying Team performed a flyover formation to honor those who lost their lives to the disease.

The race was held for the first time in Research Triangle Park this year, because the Raleigh route near Meredith College is undergoing construction along Hillsborough Street. About 6,800 runners, walkers and run-walkers registered for the 2016 event, compared with 8,200 a year ago.

This year’s fundraising goal: $1 million. As of Saturday, the participants – supported by families and workplace teams – had raised an estimated $750,000. The total will be tabulated July 15, when the fundraising closes.

A quarter of the money is donated to cancer research through Komen’s national research program, and 75 percent goes to the 29-county local organization in the form of grants to nonprofits for mammograms, screenings and education. Last year, $3.8 million came back from the national group for cancer research at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill.

Many of those who ran Saturday said they were saved by an alert radiologist or attentive doctor, and shared their personal desire to help make sure other women have the same opportunity for early detection and survival.

Some have not missed a Race for the Cure in two decades, and some keep returning even though they’ve been in remission for years.

Darlene Hackney, of Wake Forest, returns again and again to keep memories alive of relatives lost to breast cancer, which attacks one of every eight women in the United States.

Hackney, 55, has walked in the event every year to commemorate her mother, who lost her fight at age 73, and her sister, who succumbed at age 60.

“It never replaces my mom and my sister but it’s very inspirational to me,” Hackney said. “As long as I have breath in my body and my health is able, I will always do the cancer walk.”

For the fleet-footed who live for the stopwatch, the first 5-kilometer race was at 7:30 a.m. Chris Jackson, 33, of Greensboro, was declared winner with a time of 16 minutes and 40 seconds. The fastest woman was Erica Meling, 26, of North Brunswick, N.J., who completed the circuit in 19 minutes and 28 seconds.

The Triangle race co-chair is Diane Kerkhoff, from Clayton. She’s 63 and a four-time cancer survivor. On May 23 she finished her last of 15 rounds of chemo treatment. Up next: surgery to remove lymph nodes, and radiation (30 rounds).

Still, she considers herself a lucky soul who beat the odds she had set for herself.

“All I asked for was to see one grandchild,” Kerkhoff said. “And I got to see four.”

Saturday’s festivities also took time to confer the year’s co-survivor award. This year’s winner is Mac Crollman, a 34-year-old project manager in Apex whose wife, Anna, was diagnosed last July at age 27.

The Crollmans faced many daunting decisions: single mastectomy or double? One surgery or two? Freeze Anna’s eggs or risk never having a family?

“It was hard to make a decision on how to mutilate your body, pretty much,” Anna Crollman said. “Everybody had an opinion. He was the only one without an opinion. He just gave me the facts, and the support to make my decision.”

Mac Crollman took over the details like the ultimate project management challenge, keeping a “pain journal” for his wife and building an adjustable table that lifted her medications within reach when she was recovering from surgery.

The couple spent hours talking through their options and fears, and the Crollmans set aside one evening a week as “unplugged night” to focus on each other without disruptions from smartphones or computers.

“Pretty much from the minute I was diagnosed he was a rock,” said Anna Crollman, a graduate program coordinator at UNC’s pharmacy school. “He changed my mindset and helped me through my journey. He helped me find my strength.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski