A few days after Christmas in 2008, 17-year-old Michelle Wilds received some life-changing news.
“My mom sat both me and my brother down and told us that she had an aggressive form of inflammatory breast cancer,” said Wilds, 21 of Fairfax. “It was a hard thing for my brain to process and understand. My first reaction was that it wasn't life-threatening and that it wasn't that serious. Once the gravity of the situation began to sink in I became angry. Why hadn't she paid more attention? Why had she gone to get a mammogram every two years and not every year like they tell you to? It didn't make sense to me — that this could be happening to my mom.”
The news was doubly hard for Michelle because she was only home temporarily, and had to leave to go back to school in North Carolina.
“There was a feeling of helplessness. I wasn't able to be there with her as she went to doctor’s appointments or her chemo-therapy appointments,” Wilds said. “I called and tried to receive updates as much as possible but being nearly seven hours away was tough. I wanted to be there and support her.”
Michelle’s mother, Elizabeth Anastasia Wilds, was born in Albuquerque, N.M., and moved around a lot when she was young because her father worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. She lived in Arizona, California and even Saudi Arabia, until she finally ended up in Virginia — where she lived for the remainder of her life.
She graduated from Herndon High School and received a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech.
Her first career move was to work for the Columbia Research Corporation, where she met Michelle’s father, Michael.
“She then moved to Logicon, which eventually got bought out by Northrop Grumman. This was the start of my mother's 28 year career there,” said Wilds, who now also works at Northrop Grumman.
In 2009, a year after her mother’s diagnosis, Wilds and her mother got involved with the Susan G. Komen Global Race for the Cure.
“Northrop Grumman had a team and we decided to join and walk. This was the first time we had ever really done something like that. Especially for something that was so personal and close to the heart. And it felt right. I don't think I have a better way of describing it except for that — it just felt right. We had so much fun during the walk and I know my mother really liked the fact that she could relax, hang out and catch up with all her friends and co-workers,” Wilds said.
According to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the Race for the Cure series, which began in 1983, is the world’s most successful educational and fundraising event for breast cancer research.
“It grew from one race with 800 people in Dallas, Texas, to a global series of 140 races with 1.6 million people participating on four continents,” Wilds said.
According to the foundation, nearly $2 billion has been raised through the event for breast cancer research and treatment.
As her mother’s condition worsened, Wilds made a tough decision.
“She went through lots of chemo treatments and eventually radiation. She had surgery on her head to remove a tumor that the cancer had caused. Hearing about all these things going on while I was far way made it increasingly difficult to focus on school,” she said.
Eventually Wilds made the decision to leave school and come home.
“I think it was the best thing that I ever did,” she said. “I started taking her to her doctor appointments and chemo treatments and I can say that I truly believe that it made our relationship become stronger. Even though it was a horrible thing to go through, during her chemo treatments it gave us a chance to talk and connect. One of our favorite things to do while we were there was to watch the Food Network Channel — if she wasn't too tired from the drugs.”
Last year, on Wilds’ birthday — Aug. 6 — her mother succumbed to the cancer.
“This August will be the first year that I will be celebrating my birthday without her,” Wilds said. “It is definitely something I think about and wonder how it will affect me. One thing I do know is that sharing that day with her has made it all the more special — a special bond.”
On Saturday, Michelle will be running in honor of her mother, along with her 14-year-old brother Andrew.
“The race is very important to my family and I as it is a way to honor my mother and all those who have had to suffer from the same terrible disease,” she said. “This year I started our own team: Team EAW, my mother's initials.”
Wilds has re-enrolled in school and currently is a junior at George Mason University, where she is pursuing a degree in finance from their School of Management.
“I think I am at the point in my life right now where I am figuring out what exactly I want in life,” she said. “Everything that happened with my mother has given me a new perspective and outlook on life. I do know this: Life is short so make the most out of every opportunity that comes your way.”
For more information about the Susan G. Komen Foundation Race for the Cure series, go to http://apps.komen.org/raceforthecure/FindARacefortheCure.aspx