Marching Through History: Celebrating 30 Years of Making Strides in Boston

Breast cancer walk boston

The Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk began in Boston 30 years ago. Here’s how it became a national movement with 154 communities and millions of dollars raised.

Normally, the Esplanade is filled with sightseeing tourists, carefree college students, and local cyclists and joggers, all taking in the view of the Charles River. But each September, a sea of pink hair, tutus, pom-poms, five-foot pink ribbons, balloons, and spinning pinwheels take over as 25,000 people arrive to participate in the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.

The two- and five-mile loops begin and end on the lawn of the DCR Hatch Memorial Shell, where a “Pink Village” comprises tents dedicated to connecting cancer survivors, providing refreshments for walkers, and handing out resources for screening and treatment. The Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, which began at this spot in Boston 30 years ago, has expanded into a national movement with 154 communities and millions of dollars raised. But the movement’s core, and the key to its success, has remained the same since the beginning: ordinary people making a difference in the lives of survivors, one step at a time.

Breaking Barriers

That Pink Village, created by and for a community of survivors and supporters, represents the goal of the walk: facilitating care for patients as whole people, rather than statistics. That approach is key when it comes to beating cancer, as research and new treatments are no help to patients who cannot access them, and the emotional and financial needs of patients can be just as important as the medical.

In the summer of 2020, Jackie Cunningham, an ER nurse, had that experience firsthand. She had recently moved from Virginia to a military base in San Clemente, California with her husband, a Marine, when she discovered a golf ball–sized lump on her breast. One ultrasound, mammogram, and biopsy later, Cunningham received a call: She had breast cancer.

After some research, Cunningham thought she found the perfect doctor, a well-reviewed breast surgeon who was experienced operating on young people. However, her appointments didn’t go as planned. The first consultation felt cold; the doctor was two hours late, and didn’t know Cunningham’s name. A week before her surgery, she was told she wouldn’t be treated
because her insurance policy wouldn’t cover enough of the cost. Stress began to take its toll.

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“All I could think about was that my husband was deploying, I had just moved to a new state, and I was establishing my life,” she says. Now, instead of focusing on her care, she was facing having to quit her job and move home to live with her parents for support in Boston.

Her father, former Boston Fire Chief Dennis Keeley, had volunteered for the American Cancer Society. He thought maybe they could help, so he reached out to a friend at the nonprofit. The results were immediate.

“Being a fireman, growing up in a firefighters’ family, we’re very resourceful. We don’t reach out for help for anything. We just do it ourselves, roll up our sleeves, and get it done,” Keeley says. “But I was shocked at how people were kicking our door down to help us and to be there.”

Shortly after Keeley reached out, Cunningham received a call from ACS vice president Louise Santosuosso, who listened to
her story and told her ACS was going to help her.

“I immediately felt so relaxed, like someone had answered my prayers and taken this huge burden off my shoulders,” Cunningham says. With that mindset, she packed the biggest duffel bag she could find and boarded a plane, headed home to Boston with a newfound hope.

Setting the Pace

The night of the first Making Strides in 1993, Paula Carley, a breast cancer survivor, saw that commitment through a newscast about women proudly walking through the rain on a cold Sunday in Boston. Intrigued, she called her sister Diane DeMarco about getting involved.

“We started walking the very next year,” DeMarco says. “It was a really mind-opening event for us. For my sister, as a survivor, it was the first time in the 41 years since her first diagnosis that she actually felt like she was not battling her disease alone.”

DeMarco, a professional fundraiser, used her training from her job to solicit anyone she could think of by personal letter. Since she started fundraising for the Making Strides walk, DeMarco has been in the top 20 percent of fundraisers—sometimes raising as much as $12,000 a year.

“When you raise money for something, you have a direct impact,” she says. “I have no ability to diagnose, to cure, or to treat cancer, but I certainly have the ability to raise money to support the work of those who do.”

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This empowerment of ordinary people to help cancer patients is in the movement’s bones. In 1984, long before the Pink Village, Massachusetts resident Margery “Margie” Gould Rath was battling breast cancer and decided to fight back. She organized the city’s first ever “move-along-athon” to raise awareness for cancer research and treatment. It became an annual event in Boston. Nine years later, it evolved into the first iteration of the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk after the American Cancer Society began sponsoring the event. By then, the walk was attracting over 4,000 participants. Rath continued to volunteer until she lost her battle with breast cancer in 2001.

No matter how large the event gets, MakingStrides has always relied on a driven, tight-knit community. The program took a leap forward when fundraisers like DeMarco and Carley, who turn the seemingly simple act of fundraising into an art, were recruited into the Pacesetters program—a kind of super team of expert fundraisers started in the walk’s 10th year.
Initially, to join the group, participants had to raise at least $1,500. Today, Pacesetters raise at least $2,500.

“The Pacesetters put Boston in an entirely different category,” DeMarco says. “At that time, I don’t think the walk itself raised even half a million dollars. Forty of us were recruited as Pacesetters that first year, and we raised over
$150,000. That started an entirely new, healthy competition aspect to the walk.”

In addition to their competitive spirit, the Pacesetters found inspiration in the immediate effects of their efforts. As it was still being built, they were given a tour of Hope Lodge, a facility that offers free lodging to cancer patients and their caregivers near their appointments. When the building was complete, the group was invited to cook dinner for the patients—starting an annual tradition.

“The camaraderie of those events, the photographs, and the fun that we had doing it as teams and as women was just fantastic,” DeMarco explains. A decade into the Pacesetters program, the walk was raising a million dollars per year.

Making an Impact

As the flagship walk in Boston grew larger, the Making Strides movement continued to expand. By 2003, Making Strides had reached 63 communities and hundreds of thousands of people across the country. To date, the movement has raised $1 billion in support of groundbreaking research, patient support, and cancer prevention.

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These are the funds that let patients like Cunningham get the help they need—through programs such as Reach to Recovery, which connects patients with survivors who can off er support, and the National Cancer Information Center, which connects patients to trained cancer support specialists and nurses online and by phone. In Cunningham’s case, she had
Santosuosso, who offered a sympathetic ear as she talked through her anxieties about affording treatment and gave her insight about applying for grants. When Cunningham discovered that her breast cancer could make her infertile, Santosuosso gave her resources on egg harvesting. “She was a friend,” she says.

The experience inspired Cunningham to get involved. Now cancer-free, she works as an outpatient oncology nurse in Stoneham, Massachusetts, where she can more closely help patients who are dealing with cancer diagnoses. She’s also preparing to volunteer at her first Making Strides walk this year.

While services that help patients like Cunningham are funded by Making Strides, the walk has also created a brighter future by funding clinical trials that lead to breakthroughs—including the drug tamoxifen, which helps treat breast cancer and can decrease the risk of the disease by 50 percent. More than $600 million in funding from Making Strides has been invested in research, and the direct impact of these donations keeps many walkers coming back.

“There was a whole group of us that started out in the early ’90s, and some of them are still going strong,” DeMarco says. “Every year my sister prays that she physically will be able to do it. I always say to her, ‘I don’t care if I have to pull you in a wagon. We’re doing it.’”

For DeMarco, it all comes back to her sister: “It’s not just that we’re funding research, but her involvement itself. It has helped her battle this disease mentally and emotionally. That’s what everybody there is doing on the day of the walk. They are fighting against the disease, but they’re also fighting for someone else to have hope.”

This is a paid partnership between Think Pink and Boston Magazine’s City/Studio

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About the Author: Tung Chi