When Gerianne Thorsness entered the inaugural Alaska Run for Women 20 years ago, it was the start of a longtime romance for Thorsness, who went on to spend nearly a decade on the board of directors.
Each summer her eyes would leak tears of hope as she watched breast cancer survivors, who wear distinctive pink ball caps, cross the finish line of a race that for two decades has unified thousands of Alaska women in the fight against the disease.
With a head of red hair, Thorsness was easy to spot in the field of 700 runners in that first race. Saturday morning when she helps send off a crowd of about 7,000 as an honorary starter, she will sport light brown hair with curls she never had until recently, when her hair grew back after chemotherapy treatment. Atop those curls will be a pink hat.
One out of eight women get breast cancer, an American Cancer Society statistic that suggests about 850 of the girls and women who run or walk Saturday will get the disease.
Thorsness, 51, got her diagnosis two months before last year's Run for Women, and she says she is alive today because of the race.
Her involvement with the event, which included terms as the board president and race director, gave her an acute understanding of the importance of early detection and treatment. When she felt something unusual during a self-exam -- not a lump, she said, but something she described as a denseness or fullness -- she was on the phone with her doctor the next day.
"I have to attribute that to having spent so much time with the Run for Women," Thorsness said.
Without that heightened awareness, she said, "I wouldn't have done what I did. When something was there, I knew to do something."
Even though there was no lump -- the typical warning sign of breast cancer -- Thorsness and her doctor, Stacey Nieder, chose to be proactive. A mammogram and an ultrasound were ordered.
The discovery? Stage 3 lobular breast cancer, a sneaky kind of cancer that Thorsness says "can slither around and get into lots of things."
It had gotten into Thorsness's lymph nodes and required aggressive action. Chemotherapy from April to September to shrink the tumor. Surgery in October to remove both breasts and lymph nodes. Radiation from December to February.
"Now I'm preparing for reconstruction and am on hormone therapy, which is long-term," Thorsness said. "I'm still struggling with fatigue. There's a lot of weakness in my arms and I'm 50, so I didn't bounce back like when you're younger."
She was in far worse shape for last year's race, when she walked the one-mile course with her children. She was a couple of months into chemotherapy, her hair was falling out and she was terrified at what else awaited her.
"I was still so fearful and afraid of what was immediate," she said. "How much sick am I gonna get? Is this gonna work?
"I have this cup-is-half-full (attitude), so even when I got diagnosed I assumed I would take the easy route. Breast cancer is so much more survivable now. There was that arm's-length distance from the reality of things. Then it's you."
Thorsness spent many nights soaking in a hot bath and reading her Kindle while trying to avoid thinking about the worst that could happen.
"I was afraid of all of the things I would miss," she said. "My children, oh my goodness, how would they handle not having a mom?
"To think about your own mortality, you don't know what it's like."
At first Thorsness assured her four children -- Sophia, 15; Annie, 12; Kaiya, 9; Henry, 7 -- that it was no big deal. As she learned more about her cancer, she and husband John realized it was a very big deal and the kids needed to know more about what was going on.
Kaiya's response was to tell her mother she was beautiful, time and again. "I don't know where she got that, but it was wonderful to hear," Thorsness said.
Henry, who is a special-needs child, showed his support by taking a razor to his head. "He shaved right down the center of his head so he could look like mom," Thorsness said.
It was because of the kids that Thorsness acted aggressively when it came time for surgery. The tumor was in her right breast but she was told there was a 30 percent chance it could manifest in her other breast. She opted for a double mastectomy.
"It was a pretty easy choice," she said. "I have these kids. I don't want to take any chances. And I don't want to go through this again."
Scores of friends and family members rallied around the Thorsnesses during the last year. They brought meals, they sent cards, they ran errands. One day, a woman who lived several miles away showed up with a freshly picked sunflower.
Thorsness said she wishes she could put all of their names on the "In memory" signs that race participants pin to the backs of their shirts after writing the names of breast cancer victims they are honoring.
She said she expects to cry sometime Saturday morning, because she always cries at the Run for Women.
"I'm really looking forward to being there, and I'm sure I'll still be looking at those other guys with the pink hats and I'll cry happy tears," she said. "You just love seeing these people."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
20th annual Alaska Run for Women
• 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m. -- Free shuttle between BP parking lot and Sullivan Arena/Anchorage Football Stadium.
• 6:45-8:15 a.m. -- Bib pickup for all events and registration for the untimed 1-mile and untimed 5-mile events (no entry fee; donations encouraged)
• 7:30 a.m. -- Yoga warmup
• 8:30 a.m. -- 1-mile start
• 8:45 a.m. -- 5-mile timed start
• 9 a.m. -- 5-mile untimed start
• 9:10 a.m. -- 5-mile untimed party wave
• 10:30 a.m. -- Awards ceremony and raffle drawing
Race starts in Sullivan Arena parking lot and finishes in Anchorage Football Stadium