Kim Kernan of Darien was 33 years old and 7 months pregnant with her second child when she discovered a lump in her expanding breast, quite by accident; she had rubbed up against a sharp object and was feeling the impacted spot.
A biopsy revealed an aggressive cancer had taken hold in a tumor the size of a pea. She underwent a mastectomy without a moment’s delay, with her obstetrician on standby in the event the radical surgery might induce an early labor.
Seventeen years later, on Saturday, Oct. 3, Kim will wear a pink tee-shirt and hold a pink balloon aloft, as she joins other breast cancer survivors, their friends and families, in a "Mile of Pink" lining the Post Road in downtown Darien.
This weekend’s rally marks the beginning of Stamford Hospital’s “Paint the town Pink,” awareness campaign, now in its fifth year. Throughout the month of October, the hospital will sponsor a number of activities in Stamford, New Canaan and Darien, all to raise awareness of breast cancer.
The "Mile of Pink" is the brainchild of Darien resident Susan Flanagan, herself a breast cancer survivor.
Susan, 56, is a poster child for the power of a positive outlook. After years of unremarkable mammograms, on Good Friday, 2007, she heard the unwanted words after an annual mammogram: "Let’s take a look at this."
"That’s the worst part," she remembers.
A lumpectomy, or partial mastectomy, removed the cancerous tumor at its earliest stage. Radiation therapy five days a week for six and a half weeks followed. After years of follow-up mammograms and blood tests, Susan believes she is cancer-free.
Susan maintained a stiff upper lip throughout the ordeal:
"If you were having a bad day and thought about what was being done to you, you’d fall apart.”
She determined to be hopeful, energetic and unworried.
"Two days after the surgery, I was on the beach in a bathing suit.”
The eldest of seven children, Susan kept the bad news from her mother for an entire year following her treatment to spare unnecessary worry.
"Now that I’m done with it I can talk about it," she said, noting that she told only her husband and five close friends: her support network.
"I didn’t want to be treated as a patient, with friends and family calling all the time to ask if I was all right," she said.
Susan says she received superior treatment at Greenwich Hospital, where the surgery occurred, and Stamford Hospital, which directed her radiation regime.
She volunteered to head a four-member committee with friends Kim, Debbie Parnon and Gretchen Teichgraeber, to coordinate the Mile of Pink in Darien as a special thank you to the "angels" who oversaw her radiation treatments.
"One person’s experience can help another," she said.
The goal is to stimulate public awareness of the benefits of early detection of breast cancer, the leading cancer killer of women in the nation. There are multiple approaches to early detection including regular self-examination, mammograms, thermal imaging and genetic testing to name but a few.
Susan’s friend Debbie, while not herself directly affected, has seen both a sister-in-law and aunt battle breast cancer. Debbie said she was joining the Mile of Pink to support Susan and others, noting that breast cancer is so common that most people know someone undergoing the experience.
One in eight women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, as will one in 100 men.
Like Debbie, Gretchen has not battled the disease herself, but breast cancer has affected her family.
"Like many people, my life as been seriously affected by breast cancer," said Gretchen. "My mother died at 52, leaving behind six daughters the ages of eight and 16. I was 13, a devastating age to lose a mother. One of my sisters had breast cancer before the age of 50 and my mother in-law did as well. Thankfully both are survivors."
Noting that her daughter has breast cancer history on both sides of her family tree, Gretchen said developing a vaccine and cure for the disease is long overdue.
Kim and her daughter, now a high-school senior, are healthy and “doing fine.” But her younger sister, a mother of three, recently underwent a double mastectomy at the age of 44, when she was diagnosed with a different but virulent form of the disease. There had been no prior history of breast cancer in the family.
Kim is joining "Mile of Pink" to express her support for others and to press for heightened attention to prevention and cure for the disfiguring and too often fatal disease.
In preparation for the event, the Darien Sport Shop’s John Marvin and Julio Jaramillo hoisted a huge banner depicting a pink ribbon on the establishment’s north-facing wall on Thursday.
The Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa is offering pink nail polish, Robek’s a pink smoothie and Helen Ainson cotton candy during the event.
State liquor laws forbid merchants from serving alcohol during the hours the Mile of Pink will take place. But later in the day, Nicholas-Roberts will be pouring complimentary pink champagne; a toast to breast cancer survivors and those who step forward to share their hopeful, albeit painful, stories with others.