Molly Walsh thinks she was able to beat breast cancer 24 years ago partly because her gynecologist caught the cancer early on, something that she is increasingly grateful for as she hears stories of others in the McHenry County community who weren't quite so lucky.
After her experiences back in 1995, Walsh said she became involved with the Family Health Partnership Clinic in Crystal Lake, which provides subsidized preventive health services to the uninsured or underinsured.
“There are a lot of folks here that don't have the luxury of going to the doctor every year for a checkup,” Walsh said. “I was very, very fortunate, and I just wanted to be able to help other women.”
Walsh said she got the idea for a 5K fundraiser from her husband, Bob Walsh, who is an avid runner. She presented the idea to Suzanne Hoban, executive director and founder of the Family Health Partnership Clinic, and the two launched the first Care4 Breast Cancer 5K in October 2001.
The event brought out about 160 people in its first year and has grown immensely in the 20 years since, Hoban said. Last year, the 5K brought together more than 1,600 participants and raised more than $150,000, all of which stayed local.
“[This event] is a great way to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and I think in this time we are all looking to be a part of something bigger and to really be able to know that you've had an impact on somebody's life,” Hoban said.
This year, the Care4 Breast Cancer 5K has gone virtual for the first time to comply with COVID-19 capacity limits on gatherings, she said.
Rather than one race, the event will run Oct. 9 through 18, giving participants the flexibility to complete the 5K with their team or with family and friends whenever they choose.
"This is really an opportunity for everybody to participate because there are really no barriers anymore,” Hoban said. “Now, we can have an entire week of celebrating our community coming together for this really important cause rather than just one day.”
Each participant that registers online will get an event T-shirt and finisher's medal as they did in previous years, she said. Teams can create their own webpage through the event website to fundraise online and are encouraged to remain engaged through the event's Facebook page.
Pam Spain, a McHenry resident and two-time breast cancer survivor, has been participating in the Care4 Breast Cancer 5K for seven years.
With the virtual event this year, Spain said she and her team will be “taking it to the whole next level.”
She has created her own 5K course in McHenry that starts at her house and snakes through the downtown McHenry business district and around the city’s scenic river walk.
About 30 signs will direct racers along the course and water will be offered at a few stations manned by masked volunteers, she said. Racers will be directed to wear face coverings until they are spaced out along the route in small groups with family or close friends.
Spain has offered the route up to other Care4 Breast Cancer 5K groups who may want to use it as well. Her group will gather to take on the course together Oct. 10.
This time around, Walsh said she will be undertaking the event's 30K challenge which asks participants to run, walk or bike 30 kilometers over the event's 10 days to represent the 30 women that are diagnosed with breast cancer each day in Illinois.
“The awareness is important. The need is still out there unfortunately, but we are trying to meet that need with the funds that are raised from this race,” she said. “It's as important as it was 20 years ago that we keep on fighting the good fight.”
Going into Year 20 of the event is bittersweet, Hoban said. While she is proud of how the community has rallied around the fundraiser over the years, she said she had always hoped that the clinic would reach a point where its sliding scale services were no longer needed.
“I would have hoped that by this point we would have solved the issue of the uninsured in our community, but here we are and we haven't solved it,” she said. “The need continues, and particularly in the pandemic, the need grows."
McHenry County was home to at least 34,500 uninsured people as of 2010, according to U.S. Census data.
While the thought of being unable to afford mammograms or other check-ups may seem far away for some, it is the reality of those who walk through the clinic's doors on a daily basis, Hoban said.
“It's unconscionable that [someone] would have to make a decision between paying for rent, for food on the table or paying for health care,” Hoban said.
“If people wait until they're very sick or don't get in for their screenings in a timely manner, the outcomes are much worse," she said. "It has an impact on the family, it has an impact on the community and it also has an impact on our health care system.”
Anyone interested in donating or participating in this year's Care4 Breast Cancer 5K can visit care4breastcancer.org for more information.