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AFRC team “marches” for breast cancer research

  • Published
  • By Pamela Thompson
  • Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs
A 10-woman team from Air Force Reserve Command is fighting the battle against breast cancer -- one step at a time.

Marching like warriors headed into battle, the team raised more than $27,500 this month by walking 60 miles over a three-day period.

“It was a grueling walk yet a wonderful experience,” said Jane Mann, who walked in memory of her mother-in-law, Christine L. Mann, who lost her battle with breast cancer 12 years ago. “Our team took the challenge to endure the physical hardship of a 60-mile walk to raise funds for a cure, honor those whose lives have been lost to breast cancer and celebrate survivors.”

The team comprised three AFRC spouses: Mrs. Mann, Launie Cunningham, and Margaret Sarrat. Other members were Mrs. Mann’s niece, Emily Garrett, and friends Kim Jarrett and Faye Geary; Mrs. Cunningham’s daughter, Megan, and daughter-in-law, Elizabeth; and Mrs. Sarrat’s daughter, Alison, and sister, Kathryn Loyacono.

To prepare for the 60-mile walk in Atlanta, the team logged hundreds of training miles. Participants camped out two nights in military-style “tent cities.”

Calling themselves “Tears to Cheers,” symbolizing the transition from misery to elation that cancer survivors experience, they were among 2,400 walkers. Combined, the walkers in the Atlanta 3-Day event raised a total $6.2 million for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which funds breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment programs, and the National Philanthropic Breast Cancer Fund.

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of death among all women and the leading cause of death in women between the ages of 40 and 55. Both its causes and the means for its cure remain undiscovered.

“Everyone knows someone, either a family member, friend, or co-worker, who has been affected by breast cancer,” said Mrs. Mann, whose husband, Steve, is the personnel director at AFRC headquarters. “The loss of Steve’s mother to breast cancer was devastating. I wanted to do my part to raise money for research and honor my mother-in-law.”

A challenging course, on sometimes rough terrain, in 90 degree temperatures did not deter this dedicated, cohesive team.

“We were tired and sunburned, our muscles ached, and some of us had blisters on our feet, but our team finished the walk with the satisfaction that we’re making a difference in people’s lives,” said Mrs. Cunningham, who knows first-hand – not once, but twice – the heartbreak and anguish that a life-threatening diagnosis of breast cancer can bring to a family.

“I’m a four-year survivor of breast cancer and 2-year survivor of pancreatic cancer,” she said. “It’s a journey that has made me a believer and advocate. I’m living proof that a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence.”

The vivacious brunette has come a long way in four years. She’s endured eight invasive surgeries, ten chemotherapy treatments and 48 radiation treatments to destroy cancer cells that invaded her body and threatened her life. She credits her amazing recovery to early detection, aggressive treatment methods by talented medical teams, overwhelming family support, faith, and a positive attitude that “I will survive.”

“I walked in the hope that a cure will be found to eradicate cancer so my children won’t suffer from this often fatal disease,” Mrs. Cunningham said.

She is among the 2 million breast cancer survivors in the United States. The majority of women with breast cancer have no known family history of the disease or other known risk factors, according to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation Web site.

This year alone, about 40,000 women will die from the disease. About every three minutes in America, a woman’s life is changed by a breast cancer diagnosis. About every 15 minutes, a family is changed by a loss to the disease. The disease does not discriminate; men are at risk, too.

It wasn’t just the Cunningham women who supported the cause. Mrs. Cunningham’s husband, A.J., AFRC’s deputy inspector general, and son, A.J. III, along with family friend Pat Flanagan, served as one of the 12 crews supporting the 2,400 walkers.

“They really spoiled us,” Mrs. Cunningham said. “After walking all day, we’d arrive at the campsite, and our tents were set up and luggage delivered. They did their part providing great service for our team and hundreds of other on the walk.”

“Launie is an inspiration to all of us,” said Mrs. Sarrat, whose husband, Al, is the chief of AFRC’s Counterdrug Support Branch. “Her recovery was truly miraculous. She’s so dear to us and very special.”

Five years ago, the Sarrats faced their own crisis when their 29-year-old daughter, Stacy Gibbs, learned she had breast cancer.

“We were terrified,” Mrs. Sarrat said. “Stacy had just celebrated her one-year wedding anniversary to Greg. She quickly underwent a mastectomy and lymphangiectomy (radical excision of lymph nodes), followed by chemotherapy, radiation and many plastic surgeries. She lost her hair, and many tears were shed, but she survived. She’s been cancer-free for five years.”

Her life today is made possible through the many loving donations to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Mrs. Sarrat said.

“She’s happy, healthy and the loving mother of two beautiful girls, 3-year-old Claire and Anna, who is 1,” she said.

Each walker had to raise a minimum of $2,100.

“Fund-raising was the easy part,” Mrs. Sarat said. “Everyone contacted by our team was most generous with their donations. It’s just a matter of time before this disease is eradicated. We’re conquering this disease one step at a time.”