PORTLAND — Tish Russell will turn 48 on Oct. 20 and she’ll celebrate it by joining hundreds of people that morning for   Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Greater Portland at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth.

Russell, a South Portland resident, can’t think of a better group to spend her birthday with.

“Birthdays mean a lot more to me now,” said Russell, a breast cancer survivor.

South Portland resident and breast cancer survivor Tish Russell and her granddaughter, Adriana, pose at the 2018 walk. Courtesy photo

Even though Russell’s daughter started pestering her to get mammograms when she turned 40, Russell said, she put it off. In January 2016 her aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and Russell, then 44, decided it was time she was screened. Her April 2016 mammogram came with news no one wants to hear.

“They said I had stage III A breast cancer,” said Russell, who, after five months of chemotherapy and 12 weeks of radiation, has been cancer-free for 3½ years.

Russell, a paralegal at the Congress Street law firm Jewell & Bulger and a lead liaison for the Cancer Action Network, American Cancer Society’s nonpartisan advocacy affiliate, said she talks about her experience in the hope that others can avoid going through what she did.

“I just want people to be able to feel that they are not alone and know they can’t let the cancer get to them and educate people to make sure they get mammograms and stay on top of everything,” Russell said.

Russell has walked in the last three Making Strides fundraising events, including in 2016 when she was in the midst of chemotherapy. This year she helped organize the event.

“It is so moving and amazing how many people come out, whether it is for themselves or others,” she said.

Reven Oliver, a senior manager of community development for the American Cancer Society, said Making Strides is a great way to build community and raise awareness.

“It’s one of the most uplifting experiences you can have to look out there and see all ages, all backgrounds, coming together to honor those with breast cancer and certainly remember those we love,” Oliver said.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 8,600 new cancer cases will be diagnosed in Maine in 2019, including 1,390 cases of male breast cancer. Nationally, the 5-year survival rate of breast cancer patients is 90 percent. The American Cancer Society and New England Cancer Specialists indicate women 40 to 44 may opt to have a mammogram if desired, with yearly screenings recommended for those 45 to 54. After that a mammogram is recommended every two years.

“We are trying to get the word out about early detection. It is not a death sentence by any means,” Oliver said.  “There are a lot of women, and men, getting through it now.”

Oliver said walkers at last year’s event raised $140,000. This year the goal is $150,000. The money raised helps fund several of the organization’s key programs, including Road to Recovery, Hope Lodge in Boston and other hotel stay partnerships, the patient navigator program and the 24/7 information hotline for patients and their families.

In 2018, the American Cancer Society provided 100 nights of free or reduced lodging for Maine cancer patients through its Hotel Partners Community or Hope Lodge in Boston and provided 1,500 free rides for Maine residents to get to and from cancer treatments via the Road to Recovery Program.

“All the money we collect in state is sent to our headquarters in Atlanta. This is true for the other states, too. Money is then divvied up and gives it back to the states. We receive more money in the state of Maine than we put in,” Oliver said. “We work very hard to get as many donations as we can, but we are very lucky the national organization does so much to support us in this state.”

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