LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer brought Bradenton's Deb Thomas and Judy LaValliere together last summer.
"We met sitting in these chairs at chemo thinking, 'We've got to do something,' " said LaValliere. Their answer popped up in a TV commericial for The Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Sarasota/Manatee.
Once they completed their treatments and got clean bills of health, they formed "Dr. Whorf's Chemo Buddies" -- a team named in honor of their oncologist -- and raised about $2,000 for last year's event. The annual noncompetitive 5K walk will be held again at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Sarasota Polo Club. Proceeds benefit the American Cancer Society, which Thomas, 53, and LaValliere, 50, credit with providing experimental drugs that keep their estrogen levels down and their cancers from recurring.
"We were so grateful that we were healthy and feeling better, and we were grateful to American Cancer Society and all they stand for and their efforts to end this horrible disease," LaValliere said.
Nearly $150,000 had been raised for Saturday's breast cancer walk as of midweek, plus almost $100,000 more in sponsorships, said Dr. Joshua Kreithen of Lakewood Ranch Plastic Surgery, co-chairman of this year's event.
Kreithen has been working with breast cancer survivors for 15 years and got involved with the American Cancer Society's efforts when he relocated to Lakewood Ranch in 2004.
"I just want to do the most to support them," Kreithen said.
One of the top fundraising teams at the walk in recent years is Team American Cocktail Society, a group of roughly 20 women who stage monthly networking events at area restaurants to raise funds. Last year, they gathered $38,000 for the cause.
Team member and former event co-chairwoman Amy Tuten said most members of her group have been touched by breast cancer in some way: Tuten's late stepmom was diagnosed years ago, and two team members are breast cancer survivors.
"They're all fabulous, new boobs and everything's cancer-free," Tuten said.
Tuten, a Sarasota resident who works in sales for the Baltimore Orioles, said the event has grown each year, and the sight of so many survivors and supporters gathering together is inspiring.
"I don't care who you are: If you come out there you will be in awe," Tuten said. "You have to experience it. It is the most breathtaking scene anybody could imagine. Looking at all the survivors out there, it's amazing."
Between 10,000 and 15,000 people are expected to take part in Saturday's walk, so organizers advise getting there bright and early and carpooling if possible to cut down on parking hassles. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m., with the walk starting promptly at 9 a.m.
This year's event will include a bounce house for children, live music and gifts from sponsors. There's also a special brunch for survivors.
Teams can register or donate online right up until Saturday at makingstrides.acsevents.org and searching for the Sarasota/Manatee walk under Florida's events.
Thomas and LaValliere are also hosting a whiffle ball tournament and fundraiser at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at McKechnie Field in Bradenton to raise money for their team.
LaValliere's husband, former Pittsburgh Pirate Mike LaValliere, and ex-major leaguers Don Robinson, Mike Quade and Jim Morrison will serve as guest bartenders at the Kona Bar tiki hut in center field, and there will also be a trivia contest and raffle items.
It's $50 to register a team for the whiffle ball tournament, but anyone can show up to enjoy the fun at the event, which they hope becomes an annual one. Call Thomas at 941-504-3792 for more info.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter@JasonBartolone.