BY NATHAN PAYNE
---- — ELK RAPIDS — Jami Gray and Judy Husby's battles with breast cancer are long past, yet they continue to fight, not for themselves, but for other women.
They fight for women who may someday find themselves on the wrong end of a grim diagnosis, a diagnosis both women faced once together. They empathize with women who will one day walk into a room full of doctors who will deliver a potential death sentence.
The women who founded the ABC Challenge Walk, a fundraiser that gives money to an organization that pays for breast exams for women with little or no insurance, know what it is like to be in the fight of their lives.
It's been 1,646 days since Husby was told she had breast cancer. And she was the second shoe to drop in the small, tight-knit community of Elk Rapids.
Husby spent the two weeks before her diagnosis trying to support her friend and fellow school teacher, Gray, cope with her own cancer diagnosis. Like many women, Husby had, for years, treated her annual trips for a mammogram similar to a routine trip to the dentist.
She had good insurance that paid for the exams, she was lucky, she said.
Her mother had fought and won a battle with breast cancer years before, so she knew she was at higher risk for developing tumors, but her thoughts were more for the welfare of her friend the day she went to the hospital for a checkup.
"The hardest part for me was my family, my two kids," Husby said. "Making that phone call was very difficult."
Her children lost their father, her first husband, to pancreatic cancer when he was in his mid-40s.
"It sank in when I started making those phone calls," she said. Husby still chokes back tears when she remembers the conversation she had with her daughter.
As she described the conversations, Gray reached out and grasped her friend's hands. It is a reassuring touch the women extended to each other many times during their battles with cancer.
They underwent biopsies, they became sick from chemo treatments and they often sat together in waiting rooms during radiation therapy. By the end of that year, the women had formed plans to walk in Aug. 2010 in the Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure 60-mile walk in Chicago.
They made T-shirts, raised $7,500 in donations and trained daily for the trek.
"We went through hell and back," Gray said.
They wanted to challenge themselves, to prove that after surviving cancer, they can handle anything.
Then, during the race, the pair began to talk about how much the money they raised for the national non-profit could help women in Antrim County.
"The last 20 miles we spent thinking of what we could do back home," Gray said.
They knew many women who could not afford frequent mammograms in Antrim County die each year because their cancer is found too late for effective treatment. In 2004, when the Antrim County High Tea, an organization that raises money to pay for exams for women who don't have the means to pay for the services, the county had the highest mortality rate in Michigan for women with breast cancer.
It was then that Gray and Husby decided to make a stand for women in Antrim County, start their own fundraiser challenge walk event, and begin to give money to the High Tea.
In the years since its inception, the High Tea has helped the county reduce its mortality rate from breast cancer to rank it 45th among Michigan counties. But being in the middle of the pack isn't enough for Gray and Husby.
The first two years of the ABC Challenge, a 10-mile walking race, raised $10,000 for the group. But it's not enough, Gray said.
The High Tea estimates that there still are about 250 women in the county who are eligible for free services it does not reach, said Jean McCormick, a representative of the High Tea who helped build a partnership between the organization and the ABC Challenge.
And, last year attendance fell to 100 people after about 200 people walked in the first year of the challenge, Gray said.
Determined not to let the effort fade, the women re-tooled the walk for this year, moved it from Shanty Creek to downtown Elk Rapids and re-scheduled it from May to September.
During the next four weeks, before the Sept. 21 walk, Gray and Husby will raise money and recruit walkers.
"Every step you take is going to save a life," Gray said.
So Gray and Husby continue to walk, to fight for women whose lives may be saved by a simple test.
If you want to help, go to abcchallengewalk.com or to www.antrimcountyhightea.org.