When Pat Messick received the diagnosis, she became one of the people she had always read about: a victim of breast cancer.
"You're in a daze," said Messick, of Towson. "You feel very mortal, like you're going to have an end that might be sooner than you thought. You start having these very finite thoughts. In a way, you get used to it. But it always haunts you. It never goes away."
That was almost two years ago. Today, Messick will be one of 15,000 people expected at the Inner Harbor for the "Race for the Cure," an annual event organized by the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Festivities begin at 8: 30 a.m. at Rash Field and will feature a one-mile walk and five-mile courses that can be walked or run.
Since 1983, the race has become much more than a fund-raiser for cancer research. For those who struggle with the disease, it is a powerful reminder that their fight is not a solitary one.
Today's event will have added significance for Messick. Rather than blending into the crowd, she expects to walk with several women who, like her, are under the care of Dr. Gina Sager, a breast surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital.
All consider themselves survivors, although they agree the term doesn't mean they are cured. In addition to Messick, the group will include Delores Harvey, who had surgery a year ago; Pam Fleming, whose surgery was about 1 1/2 years ago, and Darby Schaub, who will soon reach five years since the operation.
Sager says at least 15 of her patients plan to participate today, though she's not sure how many will walk as a group. A general surgeon for many years, Sager now concentrates almost exclusively on breast cancer patients. This allows her to spend more time with each patient, not just in the anxious days after a diagnosis, but also in the years that follow when patients show up, sometimes uneasily, for their annual checkups.
They are patients for life.
"Breast disease in general is more than a one-time event," Sager said. "You take somebody's appendix out, you see them in post-operative follow-up, and then it's over. Once you've had breast cancer, there are mammographic follow-ups, office follow-ups, and the same anxiety comes back to haunt them."
The throngs showing up for the race are a strong reminder that breast cancer is not just a disease that claims 43,000 lives in the United States every year, she said. It also is a disease that many women overcome, and the outlook is best when the cancer is caught before it has spread.
"There are significantly more survivors than people realize -- 1.6 to 2 million in the United States," Sager said.
Despite her message of hope, Sager said all breast cancer patients -- even those with the best prognosis -- need to get checked for recurrence the rest of the lives. That means the anxiety is never really over.
"Every single day is a victory," she said. "With every mammogram, there is emotional upheaval. You hope nobody will come in with a funny look on their face and say, 'We need to get more pictures. We need to talk to your doctor.' "
Sager didn't have to cajole anyone to show up today. She said she discovered recently that many of her patients had already decided to participate, and it seemed a good idea to organize several into a contingent of walkers.
Much is made of the money raised by this race -- $725,000 last year -- and others held throughout the year in cities nationwide. But, Sager said, "The most important part is walking into a place where there are 15,000 people who have done some rendition of what you have done."
When she crossed the finish line last year wearing one of the pink caps designating a cancer "survivor," Messick felt an overwhelming sense of kinship.
"You might be part of a club you don't want to be in, but it's so warming," said Messick, 54. "You look at these people and say, 'They're all here. We're here, and we're all making it.' "
Harvey, 63, a professor of education at Coppin State College, said her diagnosis arrived like a bombshell, but she learned to cope after realizing she was in good hands. She also was gratified that her tumor was caught early, before it had spread.
"It's important to say to women, 'Yes, you are going to be afraid,' " she said. "'And yes, fear can be debilitating. But take courage and follow through with someone you can trust.' "
Like other women in her group, Fleming made the decision to have a lumpectomy and radiation -- an option available to women whose tumors are small and localized. A massage therapist who lives in Hampden, she said it is important for women to accept their decisions despite all the uncertainties.
"Look at everything, think about it and talk about it," said Fleming, 66. "Then, make a decision, and don't look back. Don't worry about the little niggle in the back of your head, the what-ifs."
Schaub, a nurse practitioner from Ellicott City, will be walking in her second event, this time with several family members, including a sister-in-law who also battled breast cancer.
"You see how many people survived, how well people are doing," said Schaub, 51.
Many people wear tags honoring people who have died, and that carries an important message. "It helps bring a reality check. We're all dealt a deck of cards. You've got to deal with what you get. You can look at it as a negative thing, or use it as an opportunity to decide how to spend your life," Schaub said.
Pub Date: 10/03/99