Dear Daily: Huilian Ma Anderson’s 39-Mile Odyssey

by Ashley Baker

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Huilian Ma Anderson, a longtime Daily fave and publicist at Moxie Communications Group, embarked on an incredible journey to raise funds and awareness for the disease. She reports back from her 39-mile adventure:

“You have breast cancer” is a phrase no women should ever hear. Unfortunately, I was on the receiving end of those words two years ago — I had Stage 2 breast cancer. I was in my early thirties and, in all honesty, hadn’t been aware of my family history, hadn’t gotten regular check-ups or done self exams. I wish I had been more diligent. We read the headlines all the time, see the ads, hear the stories and the stats, but they never really sink in. The reality is that cancer can happen to anyone. It doesn’t wait because you’re busy at work or with life.

Suddenly here I was, panic-stricken and fearful. The doctors and nurses at Memorial Sloan Kettering calmed my nerves and reassured me they would do everything in their power to help me win this battle. My treatment would include eight rounds of neoadjuvant chemotherapy over the course of four months. My hair fell out (although I shaved it off first and felt like a badass G.I. Jane for a few days) and I lost a total of eight pounds. My energy was at an all-time low, but my spirit was not. I had to be strong for my three-year-old-daughter who needed me — because I was still the same “mama” to her, with or without hair. After learning that I tested positive for BRCA2, a gene that increases a woman’s risk of breast and ovarian cancer, I decided to proceed with an elective double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery, which took another three months to complete. Fast-forward to now: I am happy to report that I am in remission!


This year, I wanted to give back in a big way and decided to participate in the Avon 39 The Walk to End Breast Cancer on October 14th and 15th, the largest fundraising event for Avon Breast Cancer Crusade. I was blessed to have four amazing women join me on my journey. Team Force of Nature included Leslie Bishop, Carrie Roberts, Julia Kalachnikoff and Venessa Lau, to all of whom I am eternally grateful for their incredible longstanding friendship and support. We collectively fundraised $12,000 and helped contribute to the $6.4 million that was raised by the walk’s 2,500 participants this year! These are much needed funds that will go towards breast cancer research, treatment, clinical trials, and more. 
Over the course of those two days, we walked a total of 39 miles throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. It took everything in our mind and body to power through — but we knew we had to complete it, if not for us then for everyone else who donated on our behalf and believed in us. Here’s a snapshot of how the event unfolded.

SATURDAY, OCT. 14th

6:00 AM: Arrive at Hudson River Park’s Pier 97 for the opening ceremony. The sun isn’t even up yet and the place is packed — it’s a bit emotional looking at the sheer size of the crowd. You can’t help but feel the camaraderie; we’re all strangers, but for two days, we’re family and joining together in this crusade. I look around and notice people are wearing signs on their backs declaring for whom they’re walking. “My mother.” “My sister.” “My fellow breast cancer warriors.”

6:45 AM: Avon 39 The Walk to End Breast Cancer kicks off! For the next six miles, we walk along the West Side Highway all the way down to Battery Park. Energy level is high and the enthusiasm, electrifying.

9:45 AM: We go through the Financial District and pause to take a team photo with Kristen Visbal’s Fearless Girl statue. She stands defiantly, arms akimbo, and we all strike a similar pose. For me, in that moment, she represents all of the Avon 39 warriors out there.

10:30 AM: At mile eight, we take a breather at one of the many rest stops they’ve set up for us. We refill on water and snacks — Welch’s Graham Slam, a peanut-butter-and-jelly graham-cracker sandwich, is a team favorite — and then decide to push through to lunch. No more breaks! We go full-speed across the Brooklyn Bridge.

12:15 PM: We have lunch at a small park in Brooklyn and then we’re off! Again.

1:00 PM: After a scenic walk through beautiful Brooklyn Heights, we cross the Williamsburg Bridge at mile 15. Even though I’m a lifelong New Yorker, I’ve never actually crossed this bridge on foot. Let me tell you: It is steep and long! My legs start to get really tight and I can feel an ache building up along my back. But as they say, no rest for the weary. Leslie attempts to rally the troops with a light jog so we reach the end of the bridge quicker — that doesn’t last long.

2:15 PM: We pass a cheer section. All along the route, various groups get together to cheer on the walkers with signs, pom-poms, party clappers and music. They give us high fives and much needed sweets. Their support keeps us going. If I had to pick my favorite sign — and there were many — it would have to be the one that read, “Every Blister Saves a Sister.”

2:45 PM: Mile 20! We happen to be one block away from my first apartment in Murray Hill. I learn that each year the New York route is different, so the fact that we’re hitting this milestone in my old neighborhood… Coincidence or kismet?

4:40 PM: My body is on auto drive, and it can’t quite distinguish between exhaustion and pain at this point. I zone out to block the discomfort. The conversation comes to a lull as we’re all feeling the same. To lighten the mood, I joke that the pain isn’t as horrible as chemo — just different. The moms in the group quip that this is like giving birth.

5:00 PM: We begin to cross Wards Island Bridge, heading into Randall’s Island, where the walk will end for the day. As we walk up the stairs to the entrance, there’s a man dressed like a gorilla, blowing a trumpet to energize the walkers. We turn the corner and there’s another man, dressed up like a cow. We smile, and our spirits lift a bit. Plus, once we get over the bridge, we’re done!

5:10 PM: Correction: we’re not done. We’ve crossed over to Randall’s Island, but we still have a while to walk before we hit the finish line. We’re so close and yet every minute feels like eternity. I pull out my iPhone for some last-minute musical encouragement and Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” fills the air. “Listen, they say the first time ain’t the greatest, but I tell ya if I had the chance to do it all again I wouldn’t change a stroke…”

5:30 PM: We finally finish! We’ve just walked 26 miles in 10 hours. Our bodies are in shambles. We all go home to ice our legs and soak in Epsom salt baths.

SUNDAY, OCT. 15th

6:15 AM: We meet up to take a shuttle into Basecamp 39, where many of the walkers have camped out overnight. We have breakfast, and grab free samples of Tiger Balm to help soothe our stiff and sore muscles. We’re feeling good though — somehow, we’ve all miraculously recuperated enough to continue the walk with renewed vigor. The Avon team leads a group stretch session.

7:30 AM: With Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop This Feeling” blasting from the speakers, off we go! Only 13 miles today. We’re feeling refreshed and remind ourselves how easy the first 13 miles were yesterday. We cross back over Wards Island Bridge and into Manhattan, making our way down the Upper East Side.

9:00 AM: Five miles in, I’m on the verge of giving up. The aches hit a lot harder on the second day. If it wasn’t for my team members encouraging me, I don’t know if I could have made it. They held my hand and cheered me every step of the way. Our mantra: “One step in front of the other.”

10:15 AM: We notice a firefighter walking with us — in complete uniform. Pink helmet and pink air tank, too. We take a picture together. I can’t believe he’s doing all 39 miles in his gear. Later, I Google how much his uniform weighs and learn it can range anywhere from 45 to 75 pounds! He was just one of the many inspiring people I’ve met so far. Someone else tells me another walker is in the middle of chemotherapy. Anyone who does a walk like this knows that it’s much more than just a walk…

11:00 AM: Mile 36 happens to be across the street from my senior-year dorm at Barnard College. Another coincidence? It’s a nice trip down memory lane again, and those happy thoughts propel me forward.

11:25 AM: One. Step. In. Front. Of. The. Other.

11:45 AM: We’re walking down 11th Avenue and know we’re close. We’re excited.

12:10 PM: Force of Nature crosses the finish line, hand in hand!!! My husband, daughter and brother-in-law are there waiting for me, and greet me with hugs and kisses. I give my daughter a big, long hug and we cry a little. I’m doing this for her, too.

12:15 PM: The team huddles together for a group hug. We did it! I’ll admit it was touch and go a few times. But we keep at it, together. There is no greater feeling in the world than accomplishing what you set out to do. All our hard work, determination and fundraising led to this very moment. I am extremely blessed to still be here, and the experience of getting through the Avon 39 walk is just another reminder that I can survive anything that life throws at me.

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