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Vancouver resident Nell Perdue had none of the risk factors associated with breast cancer. She was younger than 40, had borne a child naturally, breast-fed the baby and had no family history of the disease.
Nonetheless, at age 24, Perdue was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her treatment entailed a lumpectomy, followed by 15 weeks of chemotherapy, seven weeks of radiation and five years of cancer drug Tamoxifen.
When she began chemotherapy, she shaved her head to pre-empt one of the treatment’s inevitable side effects: hair loss. The new haircut was her cue that it was time to tell her 5-year-old daughter, Ashley, that Mommy was sick. She put on a hat and went to her daughter to break the news.
“I sat down with her and said, ‘My hair is gone. You need to understand it’s gone before I show you just so you know and don’t get scared,’” Perdue recounted. “When I showed it to her, she smiled. She put her hands on my head and said, ‘I like you this way.’”
On Sunday, Perdue celebrated her 15th year as a breast cancer survivor at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in downtown Portland, where she participated in a 5-kilometer walk. She participates in the event every year, yet even after more than a decade in remission, she still gets choked up as she remembers her battle with cancer. Her daughter’s reaction to her shaved head is one of her most poignant memories.
Set amid intermittent rain and constant cloud cover, the event attracted about 35,000 runners and walkers, many of whom had been similarly affected by breast cancer. Participants had a choice of a 5K run, a mile walk or a 5K walk on a loop that wrapped along Southwest Taylor, Broadway and Naito Parkway to the waterfront of the Willamette River. Combined, they raised $1 million for breast cancer education, support and screenings.
Many of the participants wore signature pink Break Cancer regalia, including boas, hot pink wigs, tutus, hats, socks and hair ribbons. Some also wore signature pink ribbons and pins to indicate they were survivors.
Vancouver resident Patrick Newell, 45, participates in the Race for the Cure each year to honor his mother, Dorene, who died 24 years ago in Santa Cruz, Calif., at the age of 48. Newell was just 21 when his mother died. He got out of the U.S. Air Force three weeks before her death.
“I struggled because my father passed away when I was younger, so there were no parents,” Newell said. “I didn’t have that safety net.”
He said he thinks about his mother a lot, especially at key life events such as the birth of his daughter, Brittany, who now is 16.
“Mom was awesome,” he said. “She was supportive of all her kids. She was the glue of the family. She was very domestic. She would have been a great grandma, and she was never able to do that.”
Perdue said since her battle with cancer, her priorities in life have changed. She went on to marry Robby Perdue, the boyfriend who stood by her during her cancer treatment, even when doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to have more children. She beat the odds and did have more children — two more daughters, Rylynn, 7, and Reese, 4. Ashley now is 19.
She also decided to pursue a career that would allow her to help other cancer patients through their journey. She works as a patient service representative at Vancouver Clinic’s radiology department. More than 100 Vancouver Clinic employees joined in the race.
“I do whatever I can to give back because it was such a huge part of my life,” she said. “Every day, I think about it.”