Laurene Mitchell has never been one to shy away from a challenge. She’s just returned from a gruelling 75-kilometre hike along the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. “It was pretty tough but it was awesome,” she says.
The Calgarian trained for the week-long hike many months ahead, carrying a 40-pound backpack up and down stairways and over logs and boulders to build up her strength and balance. “You just try and do as much as you can, but no matter what you do it’s not representative of what you actually endure,” she says.
Earlier this year, she was training for a different kind of challenge, swapping her hiking boots for running shoes as she prepared for the inaugural OneWalk to Conquer Cancer, a fundraiser for the Alberta Cancer Foundation
Held on June 25, the event started at Shaw Millennium Park in the pouring rain. Honorary chair Charlotte Kessler, who was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, spoke to cancer survivors, supporters and volunteers about what the event meant for her and her young family.
Almost 500 participants took part in the 25-kilometre walk through Calgary’s downtown core and neighbouring communities, raising more than $1 million for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Weather conditions improved throughout the day. “It’s to benefit all cancers, and so I could choose where I wanted my funds to go, she says. “I chose breast cancer because I’m a survivor,” says Mitchell.
People could walk and raise money as an individual or a team and many were decked out in colourful costumes as they made their way to the finish line. In true celebratory fashion, Mitchell danced across the finish line with some friends. Hundreds of volunteers were set up along the route to provide food, water and encouragement to the participants. This was a day of camaraderie, with people coming together to make a difference.
Over the years, Mitchell has built up an impressive track record as a top fundraiser at a number of events, raising a total of $118,000 for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Since 2005, Mitchell has walked more than 480 kilometres in eight Weekend to End Women’s Cancer events and raised more than $8,500 during the six-hour fitness extravaganza Bust a Move, becoming one of the top fundraisers in each Alberta Cancer Foundation event. At OneWalk this year, she did it again, raising $9,000 and exceeding her personal goal of $8,000. She plans to participate in the OneWalk again in 2017.
“Very little – probably two per cent – has been donated through organizations,” she says. “It’s pretty much been individuals that have donated out of the goodness of their heart. I’m very grateful and very fortunate to have people donate very generously to my cause.”
Mitchell was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, when her youngest son was two years old. She had a mastectomy two weeks later and reconstructive surgery in 2005. In 2010, she went through genetic testing and found out she was carrying the BRCA-2 gene (the same one made famous by Angelina Jolie).
“In 2012, because of the direct link between ovarian and breast cancer, I had a bilateral oophorectomy – the removal of the fallopian tubes and ovaries,” she says. That reduced her chances of getting ovarian cancer to five per cent, the same as the rest of the female population. In 2014, she decided to have a prophylactic mastectomy to remove the other breast to reduce her chances of having another breast cancer. She’s had a number of modifications and small surgeries in between but has now been cancer-free for 13 years. She considers herself fortunate not to have needed any radiation or chemo in her treatment and says the whole experience was very positive. “I was treated like gold and had really good care all the way through.”
Her personal experience with cancer is her biggest motivation to raise money for the cause – “to raise money to hopefully put an end to it,” she says. “I have a granddaughter who’s six and because I carry the BRCA-2 gene, there’s a possibility that my three boys would carry the same gene.”
There’s a 50-50 chance of her passing this gene onto her children and then, if they carry the gene, there’s a 50-50 chance of passing that gene onto their children. “If they do carry the gene, they have a definite chance of having prostate cancer or breast cancer themselves,” says Mitchell.
WALK THIS WAY: Laurene Mitchell (far left) at the OneWalk to Conquer Cancer 2016.
She knows that the fundraising has made a difference in her own life and the life of others who have been diagnosed with cancer. “I very much appreciate the Alberta Cancer Foundation organizing these fundraising events. I believe without the money going forward, I wouldn’t have lived as long. Who knows if I would’ve lived at all?” she says. “There’s been such great improvements in treatments and longevity after cancer that there’s a lot of people that definitely would not have survived very long without the work that has been done so far by researchers and doctors. This has enabled us to survive and to have a happy, long, full life and I’m very appreciative.”
It’s an appreciation she took with her on the West Coast Trail, where she experienced moments she’ll never forget. After a long vertical descent on Day 7 you reach Tsusiat Falls, a popular camping spot with a swimming hole and spectacular views along the coastline. “Just sitting there with my boyfriend and watching the whales offshore and watching two eagles come and pick a fish out of the water right in front of us, it was pretty cool,” she recalls. “It’s just a lovely place.”
Also unforgettable were the friendships that developed among fellow hikers they encountered along the way – at community fires where they met people from all around the world and the general spirit of camaraderie they experienced on the trail. In many ways, it sums up much of her motivation to continue with her extraordinary fundraising efforts – “People help each other,” she says.