GREENFIELD — Denise DeCarlo can’t remember exactly how she reacted when she learned she had breast cancer. She thinks she laughed. It wasn’t cancer. The pain she felt was the result of a work injury. Cancer? The thought was laughable.
That was June 2012. Just a few weeks before, a dog kicked DeCarlo in the chest at Noah’s Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Indianapolis, where she works as a veterinary assistant. It had happened before — so many pups hate a trip to the vet, after all — and the pain from a wayward paw usually subsided after a few days. Three weeks later, when the ache still lingered, she knew something was wrong. But cancer never crossed the Greenfield woman’s mind.
As an ambassador for this year’s Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, DeCarlo is working to help others recognize the signs.
Four years after DeCarlo’s diagnosis, she is cancer-free and looking to inspire others with her story.
She’s one of 15 ambassadors representing central Indiana during the 25th annual race, set for April 16 in Indianapolis this year.
The 5K run and fitness walk is part of a nationwide series that helps Susan G. Komen raise funding and awareness for breast cancer. It also celebrates breast cancer survivors such as DeCarlo and honors those who have died from the disease.
Ambassadors volunteer to spread the organization’s mission and prepare for the event that brings approximately 15,000 walkers and runners to downtown Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis race is one of 150 ran across the globe.
More than $2 billion has been raised through the walk throughout the years, and 75 percent of money generated from the Indianapolis race stays in central Indiana, benefiting local hospitals and programs, according to the organization.
Last year, for example, the Komen foundation awarded a grant to Hancock Regional Hospital to cover screenings, diagnostics and treatment for women diagnosed with breast cancer, said Natalie Sutton, executive director of Susan G. Komen Central Indiana.
The ambassadors volunteer their time and energy, sharing their personal stories and raising awareness for a disease that’s widely known, but whose intricacies are often misunderstood by those who haven’t been affected by it.
“They really are the local leaders in the fight against breast cancer,” Sutton said. “They put a face to breast cancer.”
This year will be the first time DeCarlo walks in the race; during the past two years, she was deemed a “sleep-in” participant, which meant she supported the race but couldn’t be there to participate.
She’s looking forward to walking alongside other survivors who have become friends. She’ll walk for herself and her aunt, Margie Elam, who learned this year the breast cancer she survived more than 20 years ago was back in her lungs and bones.
“She’ll be walking with me in spirit,” DeCarlo said.
DeCarlo first got involved with the Central Indiana Susan G. Komen organization last year when she volunteered to be a model in the Indianapolis Project Pink Fashion Show, which raised about $30,000 for cancer research.
When she was battling cancer, she wasn’t aware of organizations like Susan G. Komen that help pay medical bills and provide support and information to women and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis.
The organization provides support she wishes she would have had when first diagnosed. Most of her family lives in Illinois, so she and her husband, Kevin, dealt with the treatment mostly on their own.
It took DeCarlo nearly two months to decide she’d have a lumpectomy, which was followed by radiation. She had to decide whether she wanted chemotherapy, a treatment option doctors said wouldn’t likely be beneficial.
People often asked why she didn’t “just have a mastectomy; that would solve all of her problems,” she said.
She felt lonely, going through treatments that left her exhausted and nauseated and the emotional journey that followed. Susan G. Komen would have provided resources to help her navigate her diagnosis, and she could have found support in women facing the same disease, she knows now.
“I want to make people more aware of the resources,” she said. “It’s not just about the pink.”
And she’ll keep an eye on her own health along the way. Though DeCarlo is in remission, she’ll be taking Tamoxifen, a medication that helps treat breast cancer and prevent it, for the next five to 10 years and meeting with her oncologists every six months.
There’s no indication she’s at risk for relapse, but she thinks about her aunt, Margie, who was in remission for two decades before her cancer returned.
“You never fully forget about it,” DeCarlo said. “It’s always in the back of my mind.”
The 25th annual Race for the Cure is planned for April 16 in Indianapolis. The 5k fitness walk and run raises money for breast cancer research.
The race will be held at historic military park at White River State Park. Registration begins at 7 a.m., with the race beginning at 9 a.m.
The cost to participate is $25 for a survivor and $30 for others.
For more information, visit komenindy.org/race.