Another finish line at Girlfriends Run for a Cure

'You feel like you're not going to get through it when you're in it,' a breast cancer survivor says after annual race in downtown Vancouver

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Karen Johnson and Jennifer Gorder run together all the time.

On lunch breaks, in marathons, you name it. But Sunday’s Girlfriends Run for a Cure in downtown Vancouver was no ordinary occasion for the pair of longtime best friends. Six years ago, the two were on a run when Johnson told her friend she’d recently discovered a suspicious lump on her breast. Sure enough, an MRI soon confirmed it was Stage 3 breast cancer.

Johnson wanted to participate in the annual run that year, but still recovering after a mastectomy and half a year of chemotherapy, she sat out on her doctor’s orders.

This year was a different story for Johnson, who’s now cancer-free and soaking up life in Vancouver. She and Gorder arrived outside Northwest Personal Training on Broadway bright and early to celebrate her triumph and their tight-knit friendship along with nearly 1,300 other runners and walkers raising money for cancer research.

“You feel like you’re not going to get through it when you’re in it, but now it seems like a distant memory,” Johnson said. “For people going through breast cancer, it does end.”

In the last nine years, the Girlfriends Run has raised nearly $400,000 for the Susan G. Komen foundation. Now you can add more than $50,000 from this year to that tally, said Sherri McMillan, the owner of Northwest Personal Training. McMillan founded the event in 2007 after her longtime friend Joleen Skarberg was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.

Skarberg endured three lumpectomies, eight rounds of chemotherapy and more than seven weeks of radiation therapy before finally being deemed cancer free. However, even after nearly a decade without the disease, her fight continues today.

“I still take cancer medication,” she said. “I just saw my doc’ in July and he said, ‘You’ll probably take that for the rest of your life.'”

Skarberg has participated in the run every year, with her daughters, sisters and other family members by her side. This time, her nephew, Ryan Farrow, decided to join in as part of the Pink Brigade, a group of 50 men in bright pink supporting friends and family who have battled breast cancer. As a prerequisite to participate in what’s otherwise an all-female event, each man raised at least $500 for the Pink Lemonade Project — a local nonprofit that supports breast cancer survivors.

The Girlfriends Run — quarter and half marathons — is one of many health and fitness events McMillan regularly hosts in downtown Vancouver, but this one’s especially personal for her.

“Joleen is kind of like a mom (to me),” McMillan said. “My family’s from Canada, so her whole family kind of adopted me and my family.”

Every year, McMillan aims to bring a bigger, brighter splash of hot pink to the streets of downtown Vancouver for the Girlfriends Run. More swag, more vendors passing out mimosas and chocolate, and more firefighters greeting each participant with a medal at the finish line.

It’s a festive occasion for Skarberg, and other breast cancer survivors, who have so much to celebrate.

“Every year, it really is emotional and inspirational,” she said. “There are so many women here with so many stories: Mothers, aunts, grandmothers that they’ve lost or that are still with us and fighting, doing well.”