Eloise Caggiano: A Survivor Helming the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer

As the Program Director of the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, this survivor helps those still in the fight

When Eloise Caggiano was 33 years old she was working in a public relations job she loved. The hours were long, but she didn’t complain -- she was good at what she did.

But if there’s anything that can turn your world on its ear, it’s a being diagnosed with cancer. Despite her young age, having no family history of breast cancer and her doctor’s doubts that the lump Caggiano found was nothing to worry about, her biopsy came back positive for breast cancer.

“Your life changes forever after that,” says Caggiano, now 41. She went on to have a mastectomy and chemotherapy, and then breast reconstruction.

She worked all through treatment, which occurred from 2005 to 2006. But once the year-long journey from diagnosis to remission was over, Caggiano says she was ready for a job that was more rewarding. “I was working really long hours and I said, ‘If I’m going to work this hard, I really want to feel good about it at the end of the day.”

So she started looking for a job in the non-profit sector. When she learned the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer was looking for a program director, she eagerly applied. And she got it. In the four- and-a-half years since starting the job, Caggiano has managed 42 Avon Walks and is looking forward to the eight more she's planning for 2013.

“I still get excited to go to the walks, and I still feel strongly about the work we do and the people we’re helping through the funding we’re able to provide,” says Caggiano. “I do feel like I bring a certain experience and mindfulness to this job.”

The Avon Walk for Breast Cancer isn’t your average fundraiser. Participants commit to walking 39.3 miles over two days -- the length of 1.5 marathons -- and raising a minimum of $1,800 per walker. Each year anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 people sign up. In the 10 years since the first walk, more than 160,000 participants have raised a total of $470 million. That money goes to cancer centers, research institutions and community-based organizations that support breast cancer awareness, education, screening, diagnosis, access to treatment and scientific research. But it’s not a race -- not everyone finishes the walk, though the majority of walkers do. To keep everyone going for as long as they can, there are rest stations, first aid tents, bathrooms and food tents.

Caggiano remembers one of her favorite walkers, an 86-year-old man walking in memory of his wife who died of breast cancer.

“He was our oldest walker. I introduced myself and asked, ‘How far did you go today?’” says Caggiano. (The first day’s walk is 26.2 miles). “He looked at me a little quizzically and said, ‘Well, all of it.’ It was just so amazing.”

Now that Caggiano has celebrated her seventh “cancerversary” -- a commemoration of the day she finished chemotherapy -- some of her friends have suggested that maybe it's time for her to close the breast cancer chapter of her life. But Caggiano can’t think of anything more fulfilling than helping other women battling breast cancer -- many of whom have fewer resources and support than she had.

“I was so lucky,” says Caggiano. “I had great health insurance. I never worried about how I was going to pay for a second opinion or whether I should have a test done. Everybody deserves the same chance at survival that I had.”

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