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Run for Women fosters teamwork in fighting breast cancer

Beth Bragg

For Joan Narsavich, inspiration came from the tender touch of friends during the biopsy that launched her battle against breast cancer.

For Carey Carpenter, it came during her first chemotherapy session, when women nearby spoke yearningly of watching their grandchildren grow up, interrupting Carpenter's panicked thoughts about shepherding her two toddlers through childhood and beyond.

At Saturday's Alaska Run for Women, thousands of women will help raise money for the fight against breast cancer. Many will form teams, affording them the chance to wear matching tutus and dream up funny names to put on T-shirts.

This urge to bond, whether with a dozen friends or 6,000 strangers, is palpable at the Run for Women, a 22-year-old happening where sisterhood is the theme and survival is the goal.

No other sports event in Alaska matches the we're-in-this-together spirit that pulses all morning as little girls and old women stream across the finish line at Anchorage Football Stadium, pink carnations awaiting those who are breast cancer survivors.

Narsavich and Carpenter know the power of teamwork, and they aim to harness that power for good.

Narsavich, 53, knows it from the way her co-workers and friends responded when they learned in November that she had breast cancer. She knows it so well that as she nears the end of her treatment, she is gearing up to launch a group in the Valley that will pair the newly diagnosed with survivors who can help steer them through some of the uncertainties and fears.

"I'm kind of excited about going from being helped to being the helper," Narsavich said.

Carpenter, 37, sees the value of camaraderie at every meeting of the Anchorage Young Cancer Coalition, the meet-up group she founded in the wake of her diagnosis in July 2011. The group is for people in their 20s and 30s with any kind of cancer.

"It's amazing to me that you can meet somebody that you don't know and there's this bond immediately (because) you both shared cancer at a young age," Carpenter said. "It's awesome and powerful, and I'm amazed every time I get together with this group."

PATTY-CAKE TO THE RESCUE

"Anya saved Mommy's life."

That's a line the Carpenter family of Anchorage loves to recite, especially 6-year-old Spencer and 4-year-old Anya.

Anya was 15 months old and Carey was 34 the day Anya was sitting in Mommy's lap and playing patty-cake.

"Her hand missed, and she hit me in the boob, and I thought, 'Ow, that hurts,' " said Carpenter, an engineer who became a stay-at-home mom after her diagnosis. "There was a lump there. I went to rub it, and I found it."

It was Stage II invasive ductal carcinoma, and its discovery sent Carpenter into immediate intense treatment -- double mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy.

One day during chemotherapy at the Providence Cancer Center, where treatment is administered almost communally in a room big enough for several patients at a time, a realization hit Carpenter.

"You hear other people saying, 'This is really scary for me. I just want to watch my grandkids grow up.' And I thought, 'Yeah, this is really scary for me too -- I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old. Grandkids -- what a blessing that would be.'

"We were just in totally different worlds. It dawned on me that there's not a lot of young cancer survivors, and it's different for young survivors because we deal with different things than the general cancer population."

COMMON BOND

A year and a half after her diagnosis, Carpenter started the Anchorage Young Cancer Coalition.

The group is fairly low-key. On the first Thursday of every month, it meets at the Far North Yarn Co., whose owner is a member. People bring crafts to work on, or just show up to talk and eat pizza. Also each month, some kind of activity is planned. This month's activity is the Run for Women, plus plans to participate in a free yoga-in-the-park class later this month.

"We try to keep it as cheap as possible," Carpenter said. "Going through cancer treatment, it's very expensive. When people retire they've got a nest egg, but when you're 25, you're just out of college, and you're just barely getting started."

Carpenter said AYCC, formed in January 2013, is more a meet-up group than support group -- "We don't have a social worker or a leader," she said -- and it is not limited to breast cancer patients.

About 20 people are actively involved, and already they have mourned their first death, a woman with brain cancer.

"One of our meet-ups was to go to her service," Carpenter said. "Some of us talked about it, some of us stayed quiet. It was intense."

Group members have become good friends, she said, bound by shared experiences.

"It's a whole other language you're talking -- 'What kind of chemo are you on?' There's this bond that's hard to describe," Carpenter said.

GIRLFRIEND POWER

The last day of Joan Narsavich's chemotherapy treatment turned into a cheesecake party, courtesy of friends and co-workers who were with Narsavich on every step of her journey.

"I never went to one appointment alone," she said. "At one of my scariest appointments, my biopsy, Lisa had one hand and Linda had the other."

Narsavich, a care coordinator at Mat-Su Services for Children and Adults, had the support of her husband and 15-year-old son as well, but there was something special about having girlfriends willing to be there for her.

"With my family, I kind of wanted to protect them and not have them worry," she said. "With girlfriends, they could relate. When they saw me change -- when they saw me lose my hair and my eyebrows and my eyelashes -- they were so supportive. It was a girlfriend level of support."

Girlfriends sat with her during four-hour chemotherapy sessions, and they came to early doctor appointments, where they asked the questions and took the notes when Narsavich was too numb to do either.

As she nears the end of her radiation treatment, Narsavich has reflected on what has gotten her through everything.

""Through all of this I though, what has been the key for me?" she said. "I thought it was because I was in good health, and all of those good health things are supposed to help you through chemotherapy and recover.

"Now I think: Is that what got me through? No. It was the support from my friends and family that got me through." 

NO WOMAN LEFT BEHIND

Every year at the Run for Women, you can spot survivors who are at the race by themselves. Sometimes they are wearing one of those "In honor of..." placards on the back of their T-shirt, and the name inscribed is their own.

Narsavich wants to help women who, for whatever reason, are fighting their battle alone. Maybe they are new to Alaska, maybe their husband or their sister falls apart at doctor's visits, maybe they live in the Bush and don't know anyone in the city.

She has a friend who wants to help too -- Katie Sanders, who was waiting to see her doctor when she saw a woman in the waiting room by herself, crying.

No one should have to go it alone, Narsavich believes.

READY FOR RACE DAY

On Saturday, about 18 women will don pink sneakers, pink and black tutus and T-shirts emblazoned with a pink bumblebee as members of Team Joan, the team formed in Narsavich's honor. Another 10 women will participate on Carpenter's Love to Live team.

Carpenter said she was a runner before her diagnosis nearly three years ago. In 2012, she walked the five-mile course. Last year, she ran the full five miles and was excited to finish in less than an hour.

"Then I saw what all the other survivors did, and man, there are some fast survivors in this crowd," she said. "These women are gonna make me push."

Carpenter hopes for an even better finish this year, while Narvasich said she and most of her teammates will be content to walk the five-mile course.

On Wednesday, Narvasich and a friend went to pick up the team's T-shirts at P.J.'s Crafty Corner in Wasilla, where owner Patty Harrison, who knew about Narvasich's cancer and her Run for Women team, surprised them.

"Patty told me, I won't be charging you for these, Joan. And I started crying, and then my girlfriend started crying," Narvasich said.

"... I feel so appreciative of what I've had. If I can help someone even a smidgeon of that, I'd be so proud."

Run for Women
Saturday's schedule

6:45-8:15 a.m. -- Registration at Mulcahy Stadium
8:30 a.m. -- 1-mile run/walk
8:45 a.m. -- 5-mile competitive race
9 a.m. -- 5-mile untimed run/walk
9:10 a.m. -- 5-mile party wave
10:30 a.m. -- Awards ceremony begins

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

 


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com