Thousands rally in Pittsburgh to raise money for breast cancer research

| Sunday, May 12, 2013, 4:09 p.m.

Lisa DeBlanc-Smith hobbled on a cane across the finish line on Sunday and collapsed in tears in the arms of her family.

“My knees started hurting on the back stretch, and I knew if I sat down, I wouldn't finish,” said DeBlanc-Smith, 51, of Rankin, whose arthritic knees need to be replaced. “My daughter said I would finish if she had to carry me.”

DeBlanc-Smith was one of 25,000 walkers and runners, including about 2,500 breast cancer survivors, who took part in the 21st annual Komen Pittsburgh Race for the Cure in Schenley Park in Oakland. This year, the Pittsburgh affiliate will give $1.1 million to local groups for education, screening, treatment and breast cancer research.

DeBlanc-Smith learned she had breast cancer in early 2000 and initially accepted it as a death sentence. But her mother, Louise Smithwick of Homestead, refused to accept that.

“My mom pulled all my kids in front of me and said, ‘You have to live for them,' ” DeBlanc-Smith said.

She endured a year of chemotherapy, weekly inoculations and frequent surgeries. This was her 14th walk, and at the finish line, her emotions swelled. She thought of two of her daughters — Nakia and Shielah DeBlanc. Nakia graduated from California University of Pennsylvania in December, and Shielah will graduate from Cal on Saturday.

“I thank God I lived long enough to see both of them (graduate),” she said.

DeBlanc-Smith wore pink eyeblack stickers on her face, one with Komen's ribbon logo; a pink baseball cap turned backwards; and a pink T-shirt emblazoned with her photo and pinned with a Mother's Day corsage of carnations.

“I walked for all the mothers and all the breast cancer survivors,” she said.

Sisters Dora Packowski, 63, of Wilkins and Maggi Bush, 62, of North Huntingdon have been doing things together for their whole lives. They did not expect to have breast cancer together, though.

Packowski was diagnosed six weeks after her husband died.

After the race, Bush planned to throw a party with baked beans, pasta salad, meatballs the size of softballs, haluski, hot sausage, barbecued ribs and Butterfinger brownies. It was for her sister.

“We'll have a bottle of Asti to celebrate my fifth anniversary of being cancer-free,” Packowski said. Bush has been cancer-free for four years.

Sue Cardillo, a spokeswoman for the race, said participation in the walk was down 5,000 from last year. She blamed it on the weekend's wet and unseasonably cold weather, the closing of the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and last month's explosions at the Boston Marathon.

But she said organizers expect to raise $100,000 to $300,000 more than last year.

Wesley Groll, 22, of Peters crossed the finish line in the outfit of an ancient Spartan warrior. Bare-chested, he held a gold-colored shield and wore matching helmet, wrist guards, leg armor and a pink cape. He took part in the race to honor the breast cancer survivors in his family.

“Today I am a warrior in pink,” he proclaimed.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or

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