CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If cancer could be eradicated by energy, love and good humor, a cure would have been discovered Saturday about 7 a.m., and the disease would have been eradicated in Marshall Park.
Nearly 24,000 people turned out for the 17th annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, all of them flooding these two square blocks of Charlotte.
Even under lights illuminating the park before dawn, waves of pink overwhelmed the eye: shorts and shirts, caps and leggings, headbands and feather boas, running shoes and ballet tutus. (Half of the latter were on dogs.) Yellow provided an accent, as mountains of bananas meant to nourish runners lined tables.
The Duke Energy Building gleamed in the distance, outlined in pink neon. When the sun finally rose, Mother Nature contributed her own support in the form of rose-hued clouds.
Participants had come to testify about acts of moral strength and courage, to meet fellow survivors of breast cancer and to raise money: $1.25 million as of Friday night’s count, with donations coming in all month. They clogged uptown avenues with a recreational 5K “run” that moved up Third Street in a noisy, joyous shuffle. A traditional 5K run preceded it; a one-mile walk followed it.
And they had also come to party.
Food trucks lined Martin Luther King Boulevard. Singer Donna Kidd, the Komen Race’s first entertainer, rocked the Survivor’s Breakfast with Melissa Etheridge’s “I Run for Life,” as honorees ate strawberry cake.
The deep-voiced alto, a former paralegal who now manages an animal hospital, knows whereof she sings. Kidd will mark a one-year anniversary of survival in November. Her double mastectomy actually helped with lung expansion, so she’s singing more easily now.
Eight-year survivor Tracey Roberts, a former Komen board member, said the group worried about coming to Marshall Park because it’s so compact. The 2014 event plans to move to Romare Bearden Park.
But participants fed off each other’s energy. You couldn’t avoid seeing the dancers on the main stage or hearing the deejay playing the aptly-titled “Beat It” and “I Will Survive.” Said Roberts, “There are so many connections when everyone is close together.”
The park may have been packed with pink women, but men were also represented. Joe Pagani, co-founder of the GoJenGo Foundation with his wife, Jennifer, shared the stage with her as a “co-survivor” after her 18 rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and experimental surgeries. They presented the first Tough Cookie Award to winners of the serious 5K race.
But all the people who posed for a mass survivor picture at the end qualify as tough cookies. Consider Bank of America employee Nicole Bills, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2010, soon after her 32nd birthday. She ran in the real 5K, then walked the mile on Saturday morning.
Bills had always been an athlete. She was the first Central Michigan University gymnast to qualify for the NCAA championships, and her diagnosis came one month after she’d finished a season of dancing for the Lady Cats at Carolina Bobcats games.
“I was the first woman in my family to get breast cancer, so there was no reason to expect it,” she said. “But it was a blessing in disguise. I’d always been a people pleaser, and now I found my voice. I learned it was OK to put myself first.”
Through her experience with cancer, Bills decided to speak out as a young patient, both in her blog ( www.chiagal.com, named for her former obsession with hair) and in person as a Model of Courage for the Ford Motor Company’s Warriors in Pink.
She was flown to Texas this year for an apparel shoot and heads out this week to talk to participants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.” Oh, and she’s getting married Oct. 26.
“When I was diagnosed, I had to accept loss of control, which was hard. I wanted the doctor to tell me immediately how to start fixing the problem, and he couldn’t. So I had to learn patience,” Bills said. “When I get a mammogram now and I wait for the radiologist to come out and talk to me, a minute in that waiting room still feels like 20.
“But I can take care of my body. I know that if I have a daughter, she’ll have to be tested at 21, which I would never have thought about (before). And I live life to the fullest every day.”