Simmons College students rose with the sun and assembled on campus Sunday, some groggy and pillow-creased but displaying energy and alertness that belied the hour.
Inspired by Helen G. Drinan, college president, whose frank acknowledgment last month of her breast cancer diagnosis has spurred campus dialogue about women’s health, about 150 students from the women’s college participated in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.
“She didn’t act like anything was different until she decided to tell everyone,” said freshman Alicia Healey, 18. “And even then, it was just like, ‘I’ll be back in my office next week after the surgery.’ . . . There’s a lot of support for her because she’s so strong.”
Drinan, 67, said in a phone interview Sunday that she has been open about her diagnosis in hopes of reducing the stigma that lingers around cancer, especially breast cancer, and to tell other women that, despite an ongoing debate among doctors about the risks and benefits of mammograms, they can save lives.
“Without annual [mammograms], I would be facing a far more serious illness,” she said. “Nothing in life is perfect, so you will hear stories that ‘my cancer did not show up in my mammogram,’ or ‘my mammogram was painful,’ but I think that for the vast majority of women having an annual mammogram is very, very, very important.”
Drinan said “lots and lots of people” on campus have come to her to offer their support and sometimes to share stories about their own struggles with the disease, or those of a loved one.
Through the end of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, three campus buildings will be lit with pink spotlights to increase awareness — a tribute from the college’s facilities staff.
“It was a lovely surprise,” Drinan said. “We’ve never done it before.”
Drinan has undergone surgery to remove a tumor and two lymph nodes, with chemotherapy, radiation, and long-term antiestrogen medication to follow.
She said her prognosis is good and her oncologist and radiologist have cleared her to continue working during treatment.
“I’m feeling great,” she said. “I’ve had great success with recovering from surgery and Thursday I start my chemotherapy process. I’m eager to get going.”
This is the fourth year that Simmons has assembled a team to participate in the walk, but about twice as many students signed up as in years past, said Melissa Tanguay, coordinator of health and wellness programs for the college.
“We have people here who are survivors of breast cancer,” said Tanguay, 35, a recent Simmons graduate who participated twice as a student. “We have people who are bringing their mothers who have fought breast cancer.”
First-time participant Kendall Bauer, 20, walked for her aunt, who has been in remission for six years.
“She was strong the whole way through, so I feel like it was only right for me to do this walk in honor of her,” said Bauer, a junior from Portsmouth, R.I., who is majoring in marketing and public relations.
Amelia Whitten, 20, of Gorham, Maine, said the walk was personal because her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in May and is now undergoing treatment.
“She’s the strongest woman I know,” she said.
Whitten, a junior double-majoring in psychology and business, was glad to be able to join the walk for the first time.
Whitten didn’t just walk; she recruited three classmates and two male friends — a rare sight in the Simmons contingent — who were visiting from Maine.
“She kind of tricked me,” said Ian Barber, 20, who attends the University of Maine in Orono. “She said, ‘Do you want to do the breast cancer walk?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ She said, ‘It’s at 7:45.’ I said, ‘Well, I said yes already.’ ”
Barber said he went to bed at 3:30 a.m. and woke at 7, but he was glad to walk anyway.
When the group crested the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge and saw thousands of walkers packing the Esplanade wearing pink hats, jackets, tutus, feather boas, and hijabs, it was almost overwhelming.
“It’s just really amazing that so many people are willing to come out so early in the morning for either a family friend or their own family member,” Whitten said. “It’s just awesome to see so many people coming together for such a good cause.”
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