Trudging Through With Tears, Laughter

Susan McAuliffe, left, Morgan Pastore, Jodi Heffley, a cancer survivor, and Robin Schwanz finish the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer at the Kennedy Center. In the Washington area, where the event wound through Maryland and the District, walkers raised $7.4 million.
Susan McAuliffe, left, Morgan Pastore, Jodi Heffley, a cancer survivor, and Robin Schwanz finish the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer at the Kennedy Center. In the Washington area, where the event wound through Maryland and the District, walkers raised $7.4 million. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 7, 2007

The fundraising walk started out fun, with Erin French and her stepmother and friends talking and laughing. But after they'd gone 20 miles of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, and it was cold and rainy and their legs were sore, sometimes French would stop.

Then she'd say, "I'm doing this for you, mom."

Her mother, Kathleen French, who loved to laugh and throw parties, died of breast cancer when Erin French was 9.

French, now 18, spent the weekend with thousands of volunteers on a walk that kicks off a series of events across the country to raise money for research, prevention and treatment of breast cancer. In the Washington area, organizers said they raised $7.4 million.

The walk was both funny and sad. Volunteers waved pink pompoms, feather boas and cowboy hats; they rang cowbells, honked horns and cheered on the people walking behind them. Every time French saw one zany volunteer wearing a cow suit, she laughed. He told her that her laugh sounded like someone stepping on a duck.

And when French saw people with signs that said, "I'm walking for my mom," she felt herself choke up.

An estimated 240,000 new cases in the United States will be diagnosed this year, and more than 40,000 women will die of the disease, according to federal statistics.

"It's pretty humbling," said Dirk French, Erin French's dad, who helped with cleanup at the march that wound through Maryland neighborhoods, D.C. streets and along the Potomac River, ending at the Kennedy Center, with volunteers covering either a marathon (26 miles) or 39.3 miles over the weekend.

The event gave Erin French a chance to honor her mother. She remembers her mom taking her exploring in small towns, looking for antiques -- and ice cream shops. French would always get chocolate fudge, her mom, pumpkin.

"She was a pistol," Dirk French said, remembering wife Kathleen. She had a lot of energy, lots of friends and laughed often, and loudly. "She was always thinking, 'What's the next fun event that we can do?' Instead of having just a bland day, let's have a party."

Kathleen French was Irish, a teacher, a Catholic. She had four young children when her cancer was diagnosed.

Erin French was too young to really understand. But one day, when she was bouncing on a bed at a friend's house, the girl told Erin that her mother was going to die.


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