Cynthia and Cat on the prowl

The Running Room clinic on Merivale Road features walkers and runners. Many of them are taking part in this Sunday’s Run for the Cure. Photograph by: James Park, Ottawa Citizen

 

Catherine Birch was 31 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cynthia Thompson was 36. The two met at a Running Room clinic and will take part in Sunday’s race.

The aptly named Kitty Cats will be out on the prowl in support of Catherine Birch, or Cat as she is known to friends, at Sunday’s Run for the Cure. The team has raised more than $45,000 in the past three years in support of the young Kanata mom.

Birch felt a hard pea-sized lump in her right breast while she was on maternity leave when her son was seven months old. She was diagnosed in July 2010 with breast cancer.

“I was struggling to breastfeed from one side and was concerned that something was wrong. I was told that I likely had a blocked milk duct, but it was so difficult that I stopped breastfeeding.”

When the lump didn’t go away, Birch was sent to see a specialist — seven months after discovering the lump — and received a diagnosis after two weeks of rigorous testing. Her oncologist told her she had Stage 2B or Stage 3 cancer. Birch was placed on a clinical trial, went through six rounds of chemo, had surgery and five weeks of radiation.

On average, 62 Canadian women are diagnosed with breast cancer each day, 434 per week and 22,700 each year. Breast cancer continues to be the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canadian women over the age of 20 and is the second leading cause of cancer deaths, according to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Birch, who describes herself as normally a very private person, has become an outspoken advocate about breast cancer and is pressing the medical community to rethink the disease for women under the age of 45.

“I was 31 years old and a young mother who was breastfeeding. I knew that there was something medically wrong with me, but I didn’t fit the profile. No one in my entire family has had breast cancer.”

Almost a year ago, the now-33-year-old channelled some of her energy into helping establish an Ottawa chapter of Live Laugh Learn, a monthly night out for young women going through breast cancer, which was started by an organization called Rethink Breast Cancer. When Birch was first diagnosed, she reached out to the Toronto group sometimes on a daily basis.

“It’s a social night out. We usually bring in a speaker and enjoy tea and snacks together. There are a lot of young moms who have breast cancer. A lot of the resources are geared toward older women in Ottawa. Rethink Breast Cancer is such a valuable resource.”

Keen to rebuild her strength after several surgeries, Birch joined the Running Room’s Merivale Road breast-cancer survivor clinic for exercise, fresh air and camaraderie.

Running Room began hosting clinics — especially for breast cancer survivors — in August 2003, says Shelley Beaubien, national training program administrator for Running Room Canada. The 10-week clinics, which are also sponsored by New Balance, are free to breast-cancer survivors and end just in time for the CIBC Run for the Cure.

“Currently, we are hosting 51 survivor clinics with over 500 members. These clinics are essential to help breast-cancer survivors train for their event with a group of their peers in a supportive environment.”

This is Birch’s third Run for the Cure.

In her first run, just five weeks after being diagnosed, friends, family and work colleagues raised more than $25,000. About 9,000 participants are expected to take part in Sunday’s race in Ottawa.

Birch has another surgery before she returns to work at the Treasury Board. Her scans in September were clear of disease. “I had a much longer maternity leave than expected. It’s nerve-racking, but I focus on advocacy and volunteering.”

jwilson@ottawacitizen.com

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