Indiana breast cancer survivor chairs Pittsburgh 2013 Race for the Cure
Whether raising funds, raising awareness or sharing her own story, Indiana resident Kerri Colvin Ballas celebrates life by helping others who, like her, have had first-hand experience battling breast cancer. The breast cancer survivor will continue her personal quest by chairing the Pittsburgh 2013 Race for the Cure.
This year's event will be held May 12 on Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park, Oakland.
“This opportunity is the next step in my journey after breast cancer, and it reinforces my desire to be a voice for other survivors who might not want to talk about how the disease affected them,” said Ballas, 47. “Not everyone wants to do what I do. A lot of survivors want to keep their private life private.
“For me, speaking out, comforting other women going through treatment, raising money for Komen and raising awareness have all been personally healing. If this role leads to more opportunities such as this, I will be the happiest girl on the planet.”
Ballas was appointed to her new role by the Pittsburgh Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization that since 1982 has invested almost $2 billion in the effort to end breast cancer. Held on Mother's Day since 1993, the Pittsburgh Race for the Cure has raised more than $31 million to fund local breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment initiatives.
The first race chair from outside Allegheny County, Ballas said, “I don't think Komen Pittsburgh purposely broke from tradition. I just see that as a happy coincidence for me, and I am thrilled and honored to be asked.
“Komen Pittsburgh CEO Kathy Purcell asked me in November if I would be willing to accept this role. After my shock and amazement wore off, I quickly said yes. The race chair is always a breast cancer survivor who demonstrates a strong commitment to the organization, not so much by the amount of money the individual raises, but for dedication to the organization and embracing what Komen stands for.”
Confirmed in her role of race chair by the Komen Pittsburgh board of directors, Ballas will serve as the “public face” for the event, speaking to groups about breast cancer, her experience with the disease and the role of Komen.
“It is so important to me to let women of all ages know that they should trust their instincts when it comes to their health,” she said. “You are your own best advocate, and no one knows your body better than you.”
Ballas will help the Komen Pittsburgh staff prepare for the race to be held on May 12. She will also speak to survivors during a tribute held on the day of the race and will participate in any other events held prior to the race.
Now a six-year breast cancer survivor, Ballas has been involved with Komen nearly as long.
“Two of my best friends, Vicki Smith and Connie Mabin, registered to participate in the Pittsburgh Race for the Cure in my honor,” said Ballas, who was in treatment at that time. “It was March 2007, and I was touched by their thoughtfulness. It was my first reason to smile. At the same time, one of my former co-workers, Mary Danitz, registered for the Southwest Florida Race for the Cure in my honor.”
Ballas said she was so inspired by the actions of her friends that she decided to do something positive with her breast cancer.
“Since I am passionate about things I believe in and I'm not shy, I decided I could use my experience to help others,” she said. “I decided to raise money and speak out so that young women will become more aware of their bodies, which might lead to earlier diagnoses.”
Ballas was undergoing chemotherapy when she participated in her first Pittsburgh race in 2007. She was diagnosed with Stage IIb infiltrating ductal carcinoma of the right breast the summer before.
“Initially, the diagnosis was shocking, devastating and angering,” said Ballas, who had symptoms for more than a year and a half before the diagnosis.
“My doctor assured me that they were nothing serious,” Ballas said. “When I discovered a lump in my left breast in the summer of 2006, I returned to my doctor. Surprisingly, there was no problem in the left breast, but I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my right breast.
“I was filled with disbelief by the diagnosis. I was only 40 years old, and my kids were 10 and 6. It was a rude awakening for me and for my family. I had suspected something wasn't right, and after my diagnosis I researched breast cancer symptoms and realized I had had four of the top six all along.”
Ballas had a right radical mastectomy, six months of intensive chemotherapy, eight weeks of daily radiation and took the drug Tamoxifen.
“The effects of the Tamoxifen were so cumbersome and debilitating that I stopped taking the drug after four years,” she said.
Ballas remembers the grueling and physically draining side effects of her treatment including severe nausea, tiredness, joint pain, hair loss and a compromised immune system.
Still, she said, “Maybe I was in denial and on auto-pilot, but I never thought that this cancer was going to kill me.... I guess I have been lucky, because since I finished treatment and surgery, I've gotten nothing but clean bills of health.”
Ballas said her children — Blair, now 16, and Connor, 12 — and her husband, Joe, 49, have also been affected by her cancer in many ways.
“It was very difficult for my small children to watch me be very sick from chemo and to lose my hair. Joe and I explained that this was part of my ‘medicine' and that it would help to make me better. It was a scary time for them,” Ballas said. “Yet, my kids have also seen me battle and win, so that is something they will take with them throughout their lives. They are very willingly involved in my fundraising activities.
“My husband has also been a wonderful support. He was with me for every appointment, surgery, chemo treatment and trips to the hospital for chemo-related illnesses. He helped me choose a wig and told me I did not need to have reconstruction for him, even though I still chose to do it for me.”
The Ballases hold fundraisers at least twice a year at their Indiana restaurant, Ironwood Grill, for her race teams. She said they are generously supported by their business partners, customers and the community.
She has also participated in Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Women's Basketball Shoot for the Cure, which is held each year during the fall term and has raised more than $80,000 since its inception eight years ago.
“The girls on the team work really hard to raise a large portion of the total money raised with their Shoot-Out for the Cure, held in advance of the actual tournament,” said Ballas, who has served as co-director of the tournament since 2009.
She noted the event organizers recruit businesses and individuals to support the tournament with a donation to Komen Pittsburgh. They also design tournament shirts and have special basket raffles at the event to increase the donations.
“It is a fun and satisfying event that the assistant coaches all work tirelessly on. I am their backup, local connection, survivor and constant,” Ballas said.
For the past three years Ballas has been a top 25 fundraiser for the Mother's Day race, making the Komen Pittsburgh's Pink Honor Roll. Ballas and her Paint Pittsburgh Pink race team have increased the amount of money they raise each year, and they plan to continue the effort as they take part in this year's race.
“My team always includes my daughter Blair, my friends Vicki and Connie, Vicki's mom, Bernice DiEmidio, and anyone we can convince to join us,” Ballas said. “Last year, friend and survivor and fellow Indiana County resident Teresa Kensey and her family joined our team, bringing both our number of team members and our team (fundraising) total to its highest point yet.”
Ballas said 75 percent of the funds raised for Komen Pittsburgh are used in the 30 counties surrounding Pittsburgh and the remainder goes to Komen's national research.
“These involvements are all honors for me, because of my dedication to Komen, knowing the good they do,” she said. “The Mammogram Voucher Program is a huge asset. Women can get a free mammogram through this program, just by setting up an exam with Adagio Health.
“I know first-hand how easy it is to utilize this program, because two summers ago I was without insurance when it came time for my mammogram. No survivor wants to skip it. I made an appointment for a free check-up from Adagio. Then I received the voucher to have my mammogram. If only everything regarding women's healthcare could be so easy.”
During her involvement with Komen and also as a Reach to Recovery volunteer with the American Cancer Society, Ballas became aware of many of her friends and their friends and relatives battling breast cancer.
“Sometimes my input is minimal, and sometimes it evolves into a friendship. I am blessed to know so many strong cancer warriors,” Ballas said. “My neighbor passed away a couple of years ago from breast cancer that metastasized to her bone and organs, but thankfully, there are many survivors.”
One of those survivors is a 62-year-old aunt in Florida, who was diagnosed with one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer about two years ago.
“It was very difficult for me because she seemed so far away,” Ballas said. “She came through treatment fairly well and is recovering now. I supported her as much as I possibly could with lots of phone calls, emails and cards.”
Ballas said the message she wants to convey is that, even though it's terrifying to receive a cancer diagnosis, the disease is treatable and curable in many cases.
For more information about or to register for Pittsburgh's Race for the Cure, visit www.komenpittsburgh.org.
Debbie Black is a freelance writer.