Martha’s Vineyard residents join Avon Walk for Breast Cancer

At the end of last year's walk, Lindsay Lehman met up with her mother, Brenda, who was being treated for breast cancer at the time.
Photo courtesy of Lindsay Lehman

At the end of last year's walk, Lindsay Lehman met up with her mother, Brenda, who was being treated for breast cancer at the time.

Sam Cleland is walking in memory of her beloved grandmother who succumbed to breast cancer last year. Lindsay Lehman is walking for her mother Brenda Lehman, a breast cancer survivor who last spring, though she was undergoing treatment and was very weak at the time of the walk, still managed to stand up at the final mile marker and accompany her daughter across the finish line. Erin Kokoszka is walking to honor a grandmother and other relatives diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as for her children, whom she hopes, despite a family history of the disease, will benefit from the advancements in detection, access to treatment, increased awareness, and a search for a cure that the money raised by the upcoming Avon Walk for Breast Cancer Boston will support.

On May 14 and 15, these three women, along with over 2,000 other individuals, will come together to walk either 26.2 or 39.3 miles through the streets of Boston. Ms. Cleland, Ms. Kokoszka, and Ms. Lehman are part of a 26-person team made up of women from the Vineyard, New Bedford, and Boston area. They have banded together to raise money, train and walk together, share their stories and struggles and, most of all, to show solidarity for the 200,000 women — and men — who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. every year.

Team Imma Be the Cure, which was founded by Ms. Kokoszka for last year’s walk, provides its members with a bonding and sharing experience. But fundraising is their number one objective. Currently the Vineyard-based team is leading the way in donations among all of the registered walking teams. On Saturday, they hope to come closer to their goal of raising $60,000 in donations by hosting a benefit at The Wharf, featuring music by Mike Benjamin, Gordon Healy, and Sabrina and Band, a silent auction, a Chinese auction, and a 50/50 raffle. There will be a memorial canvas on display to which guests can add names, prayers, and notes to loved ones.

Ms. Kokoszka of Oak Bluffs is the driving force behind Team Imma Be the Cure (named for the Black Eyed Peas song “Imma Be”). “I did the walk by myself five years ago, which I found was life-changing,” she said. “I took a couple of years off because I was pregnant and had small kids. Last year I knew I wanted to get back into it.” Her enthusiasm had a snowball effect with friends recruiting friends both here and off Island.

A number of the women joined up as a result of being solicited for donations. Ms. Lehman, a student at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, met Ms. Kokoszka through her mother.

“She has an indescribable amount of optimism and encouragement,” Ms. Lehman said of her team captain. “Her heart is almost unrealistically strong. She’s really addictive.”

Other fundraising events will be held in the New Bedford area, and the local members will also host a benefit Silpada Jewelry Party on April 9 and a bake sale at Cronig’s Market on April 16. The off-Island members of the team will travel to the Vineyard for this weekend’s fundraiser and, for many of them, it will be the first time they have met other team members, though they have kept in touch via a team Facebook page. “I feel like I’ve already got such an amazing connection with these ladies,” Ms. Cleland said.

Last year, the 15 women who made up Team Imma Be the Cure managed to raise $43,000. This year the number of members has almost doubled, and it is still growing. The women, whose ages range from 20 to well into the 40s, encourage others to join them for this year’s walk. Walkers must be at least 16 years old, and each walker is required to raise a minimum of $1,800 in order to participate.

The local women have not found reaching that mark at all difficult. “When you approach people for donations, it’s amazing,” Ms. Cleland said. “Everybody’s been touched by this disease.”

Ms. Lehman, who participated last year for the first time, has been overwhelmed by the support, noting, “I’ve had about ten donations (through her page on the avonwalk.org site) from people I don’t even know. It’s amazing how everyone in the community has responded.”

Ms. Lehman is offering supporters the chance to dedicate a mile of her walk to someone they love by donating a minimum of $30. Last year she encouraged people to honor survivors or victims by writing their names on the official tee-shirt that she wore for the two-day trek. She ended up having to add an ankle-length pink cape to her walking attire as the list grew longer and longer.

Many businesses and business owners, including Steve Bernier of Cronig’s Market and Cheryl Stark of C.B. Stark Jewelers, have contributed generously towards their cause. “We couldn’t do it without the support of our friends, the community, and local businesses, and for that we will always be profoundly grateful,” Ms. Kokoszka said.

The weekend walk can be split into two days. On Saturday, walkers will complete an exhausting 26.2 miles, the length of a marathon. On Sunday, after spending the night at Wellness Village — a tent city at sponsor Reebok’s World Headquarters in Canton, the participants will ignore aching muscles and fatigue and undertake the final 13.1-mile (half-marathon) stretch. “My temperature had spiked to 103,” Ms. Lehman said about her condition after day one last year. “My body was shaking and my legs were really shaking. It’s really tough on your body.”

Some Imma Be the Cure team members have formed smaller groups for regular walks in preparation for the marathon, while those with jobs and families struggle to find time for training. However, the veteran walkers agree that they get an adrenaline boost on race weekend by the camaraderie of their fellow walkers and the support from the sidelines.

Both Ms. Kokoszka and Ms. Lehman commented on the massive crowds of onlookers cheering the group on along the route, many holding signs expressing gratitude. Ms. Lehman adds that last year she spotted a number of bald heads of those undergoing chemotherapy. “When you see signs that say ‘thank you from a survivor and our family,’ you know you’re doing a great thing by your hard work and effort,” she said.

Despite the difficulty of carving out the time from busy schedules, and the physical toll that the walk takes on their bodies, the women all say that they find the inspiration along the way by reminding themselves of the trials of those for whose sake they are taking on the challenge. “It was nothing compared with what my mother’s been through,” Ms. Lehman said of last year’s walk.

“I’m happy to do this because there are people in this world who want to walk but can’t because they are sick,” Ms. Kokoszka said. “We want to honor that. For every step we take we recognize all those who have lost their fight and those who fight fearlessly every day.”

Today Ms. Lehman’s mother Brenda is in remission from breast cancer. The younger Ms. Lehman fights back tears when talking about how touched and inspired she was by her mother’s support during last year’s walk. As she approached the finish line, she could see a hand-painted sign held aloft for her benefit. It read, “My number one daughter is walking 39.9 miles. I’m so proud of her.”

This year, thankfully, the senior Ms. Lehman will be able to cheer her daughter along at many of the checkpoints. Last year, the younger Ms. Lehman had the chance to compare notes with other walkers who are survivors of the same type of cancer that her mother was fighting at the time.

“They were asking me where she was in her treatment,” Ms. Lehman said. “And they were amazed at how far technology has come in just two years.”

Ms. Lehman talks about her motivation for participating last year, saying, “Cancer is something that’s out of anyone’s control and I wanted to do something productive that would keep me focused on positive things. Of course I’m going to keep doing this walk.”

“Each time I’ve done the walk it’s changed my life is some shape or form,” Ms. Kokoszka said. “It’s just profound.”

Saturday’s fundraiser at The Wharf in Edgartown starts at 9 pm and will go on till closing. There is a $10 suggested donation at the door. If you’d like to make a donation to a specific member or the entire team, visit avonwalk.org, click on Donate and type in the name of a team or an individual.