If there’s one thing Mei Chen has learned in the nine years since she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, it’s that a strong support system and a positive attitude can be almost as crucial to recovery as the right medical treatment.
The 47-year-old Ellicott City woman learned it when her family helped her through her mastectomy. She learned it again when they backed her at her first Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure last year.
But the idea came across more clearly than ever Sunday morning, when a horde of supporters cheered as Chen crossed the finish line on Woodall Street in Locust Point in the 25th annual running of the Komen race.
Her time of just under 32 minutes was good for eighth place among the cancer survivors taking part in the competition. But the more important statistic was 60.
That’s the number of people who belong to the running club Chen established last year after realizing how much the 2016 charity race had boosted her spirits.
Most of those members were on hand Sunday for the run, which followed a 3.1-mile course through the streets in and around McHenry Row.
Lili Wan, a seven-year breast cancer survivor, joined Chen’s Centennial Running Club last November.
“I was never physically active before, let alone a runner, but when I met Mei, that changed,” the 47-year-old Clarksville woman said. “We meet every weekend to socialize and run. It’s a kind of encouragement that means so much.”
The words might have been the motto for the run, an annual event sponsored by the Maryland affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the world’s largest organization in support of breast cancer research.
The Maryland race, inaugurated in Baltimore in 1993, had been held in Hunt Valley for the last 10 years.
Michael Jessup, executive director of Susan G. Komen Maryland, said the organization decided to return the race to the city in part to highlight a new emphasis in its mission.
Maryland has the sixth-highest breast cancer death rate in the nation, Jessup said, and the number of people diagnosed with the disease in the state this calendar year is expected to exceed 5,200. But statistics show that those who live in urban areas like Baltimore are at even greater risk.
Last year, Komen set a goal to reduce the number of annual breast cancer deaths in the United States by 50 percent by 2026.
The plan the organization has outlined to reach that goal includes focusing on research into metastatic breast cancer and improving access to care in underserved areas.
“A lot of our most important programs are in downtown Baltimore, including screening and treatment programs, and we’re working in similar at-risk communities throughout the state,” Jessup said.
Events such as the annual 5K race have helped Komen Maryland invest more than $27 million in community breast-health programs in the state, part of the more than $956 million it has invested globally.
The race has raised as much as $3 million per year. Its numbers have declined as other fundraising runs have proliferated.
The organization set a goal of $850,000 for Sunday, and with about 7,000 spectators and runners flooding the streets, and others offering financial support, Jessup said it seemed within reach. He did not have final fundraising totals on Sunday.
Then there was the emotional payoff — the way in which the event boosts survivors and their loved ones.
“Breast cancer has gotten a lot of publicity, but a lot of cancer patients feel extremely isolated,” said Kim Schmulowitz, spokeswoman for Komen Maryland. “This lets people know they’re not alone, and that’s a huge help.”
McHenry Row was a sea of pink as people sporting everything from pink boas and bandanas to pink tutus and boots massed inside and outside the metal barriers lining the streets.
Serious runners took off at 9 a.m., a larger group of walkers a little later. Reggae and R&B poured through speakers as onlookers shouted encouragement and cheerleaders raised pompoms.
Twenty-six-year-old John Ford of Phoenix crossed the tape first with a time of just over 17 minutes, an average of 5:33 per mile. Sherry Stick, 39, of Eldersburg, finished first among women with a time of 18:22. Jasmine Terrell of Elkton, 51, set the pace among survivors with a time of 26:49.
By the time Chen, Wan and others returned at about the half-hour mark, the finish-line area had become a party, with the PA announcer congratulating the finishers and competitors falling into embraces with friends and loved ones.
A flushed Chen high-fived several members of the running club, hugged Wan and others, and posed, beaming, for dozens of pictures.
The group will be back again next year and the year after that, Chen said.
Even after survivors have been declared cancer-free, as she has, they must remain fearless, she said, as do those who must still face the disease.
Chen said her story proves it can be done.
“Nobody chooses to have cancer,” she said. “The one thing you can control is your attitude. We want to keep passing the positivity along.”