More than 29,000 participate in Komen Race for the Cure in Hunt Valley

While her classmates focused on finals in histology and gum disease, Kristyna Partain had to add another question to the mix: Did the dental hygiene student want to consider having children? Not now, but in the future.

"At 19, I didn't think about having children, but I had to think about it," she said.

As a student in the University of Maryland's dental hygiene program, she hadn't thought about having breast cancer, either. If she wanted to save her eggs, she had to do it in the brief window after the lumpectomy and before chemotherapy.

Last December, one month after being diagnosed, Partain underwent hormone treatments for egg retrieval. "So in the middle of finals, here I am having two shots every day," Partain said. The weeks spent battling cancer and trying to finish the semester, then staying in school during chemotherapy, were the "hardest thing ever," she said, but she wanted to stay on track to graduate with her friends who rallied to help her. Graduation is in May.

She never wanted pity, and what she got Sunday was a celebration.

Shortly after sunrise, Partain was at the center of a lake of lilac T-shirts reading "Save the teeth and the ta-tas," as the "Hiking Hygienists" team, about 16 of her family, friends and faculty, did stretches with her to warm up for the 18th annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Hunt Valley.

The team expected to raise about $2,000, and though several of its members participated last year, this year they said they did it for Partain. She wanted to do it as a family event. And her family said they wanted to do it to support her.

"I'm doing it really specifically for Krystina because she is my student and an inspiration for all of us," Jackie Fried, director of the dental hygiene program, said as she did pre-run stretches. And also, she said, with a nod toward her student's newly grown-in short blond hair, because "she wore really great hats to school."

Still, Partain said, "It's not about me."

It was about thousands of people.

An estimated 29,000 people participated in the 5K race and walk to raise money for breast cancer research and support programs.

Komen officials say they are on track to raise $3 million, which they achieved last year.

Hunt Valley roads, closed to traffic for the morning, were a sea of people on the move.

There were people running, walking, in wheelchairs, pushing strollers and stopping to give their dogs water. There were people in pink wigs, in pink face paint and pink sweatpants.

T-shirts were emblazoned with names of survivors and of loved ones lost to cancer. Others represented businesses, friends and families, and teams sported shirts and banners pronouncing such creative names as "Team Bustee Girls," "Ladybugs of Faith" and "Exotic Breastinations."

Susan Bernhardt of Timonium, preparing for her first Komen walk, got a surprise party after dinner Saturday, when she walked into her mother's house to 50 friends' and supporters' encouraging shouts for the walk. Diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer just before her 40th birthday on May 1, and then treated immediately, she said the jolting fear of a disease fatal to so many remained fresh in her mind.

"People kept coming up to me and saying, 'I'm so happy to see you.' And you know, it's so good to be seen," she said.

About 30 people formed the team she named Zuzu's Petals, for the little girl and her petals in Bernhardt's favorite movie, "It's a Wonderful Life."

From before the 5K's start to after its finish, tears and cheers abounded, as relatives greeted one another with hugs and as friends found one another in the crowd. Survivors smiling through their tears crossed the finish line in the traditional supporter-lined path to screams so loud they drowned out a helicopter nearby.

Among dozens posing for the survivors' group photo before the race were sisters Laurie Griffith of Hampstead and Patty Bankert of Westminster, who learned they had breast cancer within nine weeks of each other and went through treatment together. Griffith was diagnosed in February 2005 after she accompanied Bankert, diagnosed in December 2004, on a doctor's appointment, and her sister's doctor urged her to go for an overdue mammogram.

Blankert was teary-eyed after stepping down. "It's very emotional, this day," said Blankert. "It's emotional the minute you get here. It's amazing the amount of people up there" in the survivor photo.

"It makes you proud to be a survivor and to know that you have people who helped you through this," Griffith said, noting the sisters helped each other. "She showered me, and I wrapped her Christmas gifts."

After the finish line, a steady stream of participants cleared the survivors section, where they were high-fived and congratulated. One by one, they expressed amazement as they looked at thousands of smiling faces looking back at them, proud to be there.

"I feel good. I'm a little tired," said Tonya McClary, of Reisterstown, who is still in treatment, but wasn't too tired to enjoy a major smooch from her husband, Cory, before two of her three sons joined in.

They were part of the 30-person Ladybugs of Faith, which got its name because McClary calls everyone "ladybug."

She wore a powder-pink cap, knitted by her hairstylist — the woman who did her hair before it fell out — and tugged it off to show her scalp, which prompted a few other women to pull off their head coverings.

"You have to have a determination to fight it," she said.

Partain, now 20, said she tells her story because most young women don't think the illness can strike them.

"The reason I like to tell my story is this — all my neighborhood friends who are in their 40s, right after I was diagnosed, they said they all went out and got mammograms. 'If a 19-year-old got breast cancer, I should get tested,' " was their thinking, she said, noting that some previously had put off the screening. "I think it wakes people up a little bit."

On Nov. 1, 2009, she felt a small lump in her right breast, and though everyone reassured her, she had a sinking feeling. On Nov. 16, in a university clinic filled with people who thought they had swine flu, she waited with a roommate who is a nursing major.

The exam led to an ultrasound, and the doctor said she could wait six months or, if she was feeling anxious, get a biopsy. No question what she'd do, she said. "I'm so Type A," she said.

Within days, she had the biopsy and was diagnosed, then had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Throughout, she had a supportive family, boyfriend, friends and faculty to help her. In all, she missed two classes, sleeping on chemo days, attending classes on the others.

On Sunday, she started out walking, but ran the final mile.

"It was great. I'm definitely am going to do it for years to come," Partain said after crossing the finish line.

"Next year we'll get her in shape so she can run the whole thing," said her father, Steve Partain.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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