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A Noe Valley Resident Champions Race for the Cure
By Lorraine Sanders
When Joni Cassell discovered she had breast cancer, she was at home alone on an ordinary day in March 1998.
"It was not very dramatic," says Cassell, 43, who has lived with canine companion Newton on Fair Oaks Street for the past four years. "My first reaction was, it is what it is."
That a phone call announcing a cancer diagnosis would have fazed the then-36-year-old Cassell so little may seem odd at first, but, she explains, her mind was not on the illness. It was on the cure.
"You know what? I didn't have time to mess around. I didn't have time to cry and say, 'Why me? Why me?' I wanted to be productive about my next steps," she says.
And productive she was. Between receiving the diagnosis after a routine mammogram (her first) and undergoing surgery to remove the lump in her breast about a month later, Cassell foraged the Internet for breast cancer information, arranged for two doctors to review her case, took the case before the UCSF Cancer Board, and selected a surgeon after researching many potential doctors. As the surgery date approached, Cassell says staying busy helped her cope. Her natural optimism didn't hurt, either.
"I knew intuitively that I was going to be okay," she says.
After surgery, Cassell underwent six months of chemotherapy. Then she launched into a five-year regimen of estrogen-blocking medication.
Seven years later, Cassell, a marketing consultant, is still focused on finding a cure for breast cancer, even though she's conquered her own disease for now. After many years of volunteering in other capacities, she is co-chairing the 2005 San Francico Race for the Cure, the top fundraising event of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, founded by Nancy Komen Brinker in memory of her sister, Susan, who died at age 36.
Now in its 15th year, the local race is part of a nationwide series of over 100 races that count more than 1.4 million participants. It is the world's largest group of 5K fundraising fitness walk/ runs. Money raised from the San Francisco race funds Bay Area breast cancer education, research, screening, and treatment programs, and supports the foundation's research grant program.
On race day, it's hard to miss the stream of runners and walkers, most of whom wear pink for the occasion. While many don pink T-shirts, more adventurous participants show up in eye-catching pink turbans, pajamas, and other costumes. Many in the race wear or carry signs to remember lost loved ones, celebrate survivors, or support women currently battling breast cancer.
Cassell attended her first race in 1999. "It was like nothing I'd ever experienced, and I was so shocked and amazed and felt so supported all at the same time that it brought on emotions I didn't expect."
Still, she shied away from wearing the pink T-shirt traditionally worn by breast cancer survivors during the event. "It's kind of a personal thing," she says.
Cassell has changed her mind in recent years. "I just realized that it was my responsibility to inform other women," she explains. Wearing the "Survivor" shirt during the race was the most visible way for her to accomplish that.
Although an estimated 95 percent of women diagnosed with contained breast cancer (cancer that has not spread to the lymph nodes) will still be alive in five years, the disease remains the second leading cause of cancer death among women, according to the Komen Foundation. The key is early detection, but many women are uninformed about the importance of self breast exams and annual mammograms.
"We've still got a lot of work to do because there are still far too many women who go undiagnosed. A good portion are underserved because the area they live in can't support outreach to those women and the families of those women," Cassell says.
In 2005 alone, it is estimated that 211,240 cases of breast cancer will occur among U.S. women, according to the Komen Foundation. Of those cases, 40,410, or about 20 percent, are expected to die from the disease. It's those 40,410 women that inspire Cassell to continue working.
"[Breast cancer] might have been the best thing that ever happened to me," she says in her characteristically upbeat way. "Because now, I may make a difference."
This year's Race for the Cure takes place on Sunday, Sept. 25, starting at 8:30 a.m. at Crissy Field (Mason Street) in the Presidio. The course runs along the waterfront to the Golden Gate Bridge and back. Participants may either run a 5K course or complete a one-mile walk. The per-person entry fee is $28 until Sept. 15 and $35 afterwards. To register or request more information on the race, visit the Susan G. Komen Foundation online at www.sfkomen.org or call 415-397-8812.