Every year since 2005, Joan Putrino has packed a bag, laced up her shoes, and set out on a 60-mile walk to raise money for breast cancer research. • "It's not an easy walk,'' she said of the Tampa Bay Komen 3-Day for the Cure, which starts this year on Friday in Clearwater and ends Oct. 31 in St. Petersburg. • "Each year my toenails turn black and fall off. But every year I hear new stories and meet new people going through the battle and it inspires me to raise more money," said Putrino, 47. "I'll lose a toenail to save a life." • Anyway, she's been through much worse than black toenails.
Putrino will never forget the first time a nurse sat beside her and slowly injected a "baby bottle-sized syringe" filled with orange-red liquid into her vein.
It was Adriamycin, a potent chemotherapy drug, and she was getting it in 2001 to treat her Stage 2B breast cancer.
"They call it the Red Devil because of its side effects," she said of the drug. She was warned about the side effects, the nausea and vomiting, low red and white blood cell counts, hair loss, fatigue and mouth sores.
"I had it all and then some," she said.
But as the drug — so toxic it can burn holes in human skin — churned into her body, she took a deep breath and felt a strange peace come over her.
"I just thought of it as a machine gun and I was going to blast away the cancer," she said.
The chemo made her so weak, sometimes her husband, Cary, had to carry her from room to room in their St. Petersburg home. When no one was at home, she'd crawl on the floor, "bald head and all."
Her children, Kristine, Jenny and John, now 22, 20 and 19, gathered at her bedside after school, rubbing her feet and sharing stories about school and their lives. Her mother, Doris Stephenson of Sarasota, moved in during the first six months of the Red Devil's rage.
A month before she started chemo, Putrino had scratched her right breast and felt a lump.
She wasn't quite sure what to make of it. After all, she had just had her first screening mammogram a month earlier, and has no family history of breast cancer.
Plus, she was only 38.
She didn't panic, but she did see a doctor right away.
Just a few days later, her surgeon, Dr. Eugene Murphy, held her hand in the recovery room at St. Anthony's Hospital and told her that the lump, about the size of a pea, was malignant. Later, she'd find out the cancer had spread to nearby lymph nodes.
"I was scared. And I took extreme measures. I wanted to see my children grow up, go to college, marry and have children of their own," she said.
So, in addition to chemotherapy, she had several surgeries.
She opted to have both breasts removed, even though the left showed no signs of cancer. She also had her ovaries taken as a preventive measure since her cancer was a very aggressive form and fueled by estrogen.
Breast reconstruction involved more surgeries, and good results. "Dr. Antonio Gayoso gave me beautiful new breasts," she said.
Today, Putrino is cancer free, but the disease is never far from her mind.
She sells sterling silver Silpada jewelry at home parties, and devotes the proceeds from one party a month to helping others walk in the 3-Day.
Her family also helps with fundraising. In October, even her husband and son wear pink shirts and caps to remind their friends this is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
In five years of selling handcrafted bracelets, necklaces and rings, Putrino's monthly parties have raised $75,000 for entrance fees (walkers are required to each raise $2,300 to fund breast cancer research).
"I've helped 40 people raise money to walk," she said.
As Putrino spreads her jewelry out at her all-female parties, she also spreads reminders that on average, one in eight women will get cancer in their lifetime, and that they need to get mammograms and do self-exams.
She also encourages the women to take part in the walk.
"It's a sisterhood and we have to support each other," she said. "I tell them, 'Everyone is at risk. Don't wait until you or your loved ones are diagnosed to get involved with the 3-Day. The time to fund a cure is now.' "
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]