Oct 31, 2008

Personality - Sue Harmon;Breast Cancer's fundraising Warrior


It's a chill morning, the light is thin, the air sweet and the crowd lively as 15,000 of us set off down a country lane lined with old stone walls and houses with Halloween ghosts in the front yard. Survivors wear pink T shirts; a team called Wendy's Warriors wears black ones with F*#! CANCER on the back. It's a beautiful day to walk together for a little while, just five miles, not so much really, except that in the time it takes to finish, 35 more women will learn they have breast cancer--an average of one every three minutes--and eight more will have died.
I'm walking with Team Sue Harmon in this year's American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaign in Purchase, N.Y., and we walk with purpose. Sue is the second biggest fund raiser in the country, locked in a fierce, friendly rivalry with Stacy Matseas of San Diego to see who can raise the most. Sue set her goal at $100,000 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her diagnosis. I didn't know her back then, when she was 32, a first-grade teacher with a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old and a disease that came out of nowhere. The doctors' advice was clear and aggressive: a lumpectomy, followed by six months of chemotherapy, then radiation, then five years of tamoxifen. Her ovaries came out because the tumors were estrogen-positive. And the minute she was able, she and her husband Dave and their girls began reaching out and fighting back.
Sue turned out to be a demon fund raiser. Friends designed her a website (Teamsueharmon.com) she gave speeches, did interviews. The world was her classroom. Everyone from kindergartners with birthday parties to high school girls marking sweet 16 asked that in place of presents, guests donate to Team Sue Harmon. This fall a 7-year-old handed over a zip-top bag with $51.87 from a summer lemonade stand. People know to give out Sue's number; she gets calls from friends of friends across the country and around the world, women who need someone to cry with or yell at, women whose mammogram "found something" and need to talk.
"What's the first thing you tell them?" I ask her before the walk. "Breathe," she says. It's easy to forget to do when your life has been knocked out from under you.
When she began her outreach, she says, "I thought, I'm one of the lucky ones; I have to be there for the next person." Well, now she's the next person all over again. She was on the school playground a few weeks ago when she got the call: That lump she had felt a few days before? Not good.
Even after 10 years without a recurrence, she knew better than to ask, Why me? But I couldn't help wondering. She did everything she was supposed to. She has a mental attitude so positive, you could sell shares in it and retire. She runs at least five miles several times a week and had regular tests and scans. This just feels all wrong.
But Sue seems to understand what Maya Angelou once observed: that bitterness, like cancer, eats its host. "But anger is like fire," Angelou notes. "It burns it all clean." Recalling the day she got the news, Sue says, "I swore a lot." Eight days after the tumor was found, she was back on the operating table for a double mastectomy. In a few weeks she'll find out what comes next. But she's already back in the fight. She hated missing the walk this year, so we e-mailed and texted and sent pictures to her all along the route. I'm counting on her to lead us next year.
None of us know how our days will be numbered. We think nothing can touch us--the car that swerves, the lightning strike, the cells that go insane and start setting fires. So we skip along, stopping to complain about lesser things: plans that fail and doors that stick and people who don't know yield from merge.
I've heard people talk about cancer as a wake-up call, even a blessing in disguise. Sue was born wide awake. She's like sunshine with skin. Her friends learn by watching her. Courage is said to be the virtue that makes other virtues possible; maybe joy is the gift that makes other gifts possible, the compliment that doubt pays to hope.
You may not know my Sue, but if you're lucky, you have one of your own. Someone who lifts you up because she lives above the waterline of distractions and temptations that drown out things that matter more. I found when we went off on spring break last year that Sue is a skilled shell hunter; her grandfather taught her. You have to see through the debris the waves bring in, so much random waste, so carelessly tossed aside. She walks that beach with her eyes sharp, and she finds treasures, and gathers them, and brings them home.

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