While orange and black colors are typical Halloween chic, a crowd of 60,000 people created a sea of pink around Lake Eola last year. Clad in pink-hued clothing, feather boas, wigs, hats and sunglasses, breast cancer survivors and supporters alike will gather for the 20th annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Orlando walk this year.
The American Cancer Society named the Orlando Strides walk as the largest in the nation in 2015, based on the number of participants. Ron Cook, the entertainment chair for Orlando Strides, expects even more participation in this year’s upcoming walk, which will be held on Oct. 29 at 7 a.m. at Lake Eola Park.
Improvements are being made to accommodate the predicted larger crowd. Participants will get to enjoy 20 live musical performances, in honor of the 20th anniversary, along the route of the 5K walk, plus live entertainment on two main stages. And instead of just walking around Lake Eola, the route will take guests to Orange Avenue in the Church Street District for a pink-out party with Lexus of Orlando. More than a dozen restaurants are opening their doors to donate 10 percent of their sales to the cause, said Cook, who has been with Making Strides for eight years, first as a band member then as the entertainment chair.
“Even though [breast cancer] is a very serious, life-threatening illness, we try to make the walk more of a party and an entertainment event,” the Sanford resident said.
Rachel VanDemark, co-chair of the marketing committee for Orlando Strides, said the community behind the walk feels like a sisterhood.
For the Longwood resident, the cause is a personal one. VanDemark was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in 2007. As a then 39-year-old mother of three, the news did not come easy. After having a total mastectomy, chemotherapy and many reconstruction surgeries, VanDemark is using her past to fuel her fire for the cause.
“Breast cancer awareness and helping patients is of course very close to me personally, so it’s something that I can really get behind,” she said.
The day of the Orlando Strides walk will be an emotional one for her; nine years ago, to the day, her diagnosis came. She’s happy to be sharing the moment with others who’ve experienced that dark day, and the struggle and triumph that followed.
“It’s definitely nice to know there are people who can relate because even your family doesn’t necessarily know what you went through,” VanDemark said. “They were there, and they were caregivers, but they don’t know what it feels like to have chemo and what the surgeries are all like, so it’s kind of nice to have that sisterhood.”
She previously lost her aunt to breast cancer in 2005, so the walk is a day to honor her.
Cook connects to this cause on a personal level too, as he played music for nearly a decade in Gainesville with a woman who had just lost her battle with breast cancer in June.
Vanessa Riefkohl was the lead singer of the band V six. She was a devoted and resilient woman, he said.
“When she was undergoing treatment, she was so tough and so dedicated to the band and entertainment that she would schedule her chemo treatments around the band gigs,” he said.
Cook recalls a survivor who he met at the Orlando Strides walk a few years ago. A woman with a pink boa and sunglasses was being interviewed by a Full Sail University film crew as a light rain fell, the water dripping off her nose. Cook asked if the rain was bothering her and the woman responded without hesitation: “I beat breast cancer twice. Do you think this bothers me?”
Cancer survivors are a strong group, VanDemark said, and the Making Strides event in the heart of Orlando shows that committed unison.
“It’s festive at the same time as being somewhat sobering,” she said.
For more information about the Orlando Strides walk, visit http://bit.ly/2elkZOL