By Michael Jacobs

michaeljacobs@reporternewspapers.net

In December, Sandy Springs resident Laura Vickers ran 20 miles — not surprising for a veteran of marathons. Today, however, “I can’t even walk down the block without stopping and taking a breath,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”

The culprit in the physical decline of the 38-year-old mother of two is a rare, hard-to-diagnose, aggressive cancer called inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), which can strike and spread with little more indication than redness easily mistaken for a rash or benign infection.

The side effects of fighting cancer and taking some 50 pills a day have left the athletic accountant weak and short of breath. She suffers through nagging but debilitating problems such as splits in her fingers that sometimes prevent her from tying her son’s shoes infected ingrown toenails that kept her from walking for a month. She has learned to deal with nausea and diarrhea.

“It’s stupid stuff. If you just had one, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but you put them all together, and some days you just don’t want to get out of bed,” she said. “Everything hurts.”

Vickers’ family is in California, and husband Travis’ family is in Florida. But their friends and neighbors, inside and outside the Atlanta area, have stepped up to help their couple and their children, Samantha, 9, and Gavin, 2½, make it through, day by day.

“Luckily, I have a great support system, so I can call anyone, and they’ll come over and help,” Vickers said.

Her neighbors have set up a rotation so that three nights a week someone brings over a complete dinner for the family. The families at her children’s schools — Samantha attends First Montessori of Atlanta, and Gavin goes to preschool at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church — take care of their lunches every day. Vickers has housecleaning help, and her friends have given her the gift of an occasional deep cleaning of the home.

“Everyone’s been trying to find a way to help Laura and Travis,” said Meredith Croft, a longtime friend whose husband, Dan, was in Travis’ fraternity at the University of Florida. “The one thing they really need is money, and they can’t ask for that.”

So the Crofts, who moved from Atlanta to Virginia Beach about a year and a half ago, and two other close friends, Raven and Becky Davis, cane up with the idea of the Ray of Life Run, a 5K set for Chastain Park on April 25. Registration is $20.

“Since Laura can’t run, we’ll run for her,” Croft said.

The organizers initially hoped to get 40 or 50 runners, but she said the number is approaching 150 as Laura Vickers’ plight resonates with people.

“So many people are touched by cancer and breast cancer,” Croft said, and Vickers has a form many women have never heard of.

“It kind of looks like when you get out of the shower and your skin’s really hot and it looks red,” Vickers said, but IBC is even deadlier than breast cancers that reveal themselves as lumps.

The first sign for Vickers that something was wrong was when her second child, Gavin, stopped breastfeeding. A month later, Feb. 28, 2007, what initially was thought to be an infection called mastitis was instead diagnosed as Stage 3 IBC.

After a course of six months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, six weeks of radiation and a year of Herceptin, Vickers got a clean bill of health last June. But the telltale skin inflammation returned in November. A biopsy revealed it was cancer, and a PET scan showed that the cancer had advanced to Stage 4. She had cancer in five places in her lymphatic system and a 5-inch tumor in her liver, “so we had to start the whole process over again.”

“When you come to Stage 4, they call it chronic cancer. It’s kind of like having diabetes, so you have to manage it forever,” Vickers said. “I’ll never get rid of it.”

In addition to the traditional treatment at Emory, Vickers opted to try Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago, which takes a holistic approach to living with cancer and adds alternative approaches such as acupuncture, chiropractic and massage therapy.

“Going up to Chicago is kind of like when you go home and you’re sick and your mom puts a blanket over you and takes care of you,” Vickers said.

But each trip to Chicago can cost the family thousands of dollars because the cancer center is outside her insurance network. United Healthcare covers the visits but doesn’t decide how much it will pay until after the fact, Vickers said.

That’s the financial need the family’s friends hope to address with the Ray of Life, which has grown into a full day of activities April 25. An opening ceremony and runner sign-in will be at 9:45 a.m. by The Galloway School. The race will start at 10:30, followed by a closing ceremony at 11:45 and a fundraising Que-N-View lunch at noon.

Although she can’t run, Vickers plans to walk the race course.

The scene will shift to Brookhaven for an evening event at the Mellow Mushroom in Brookhaven Station from 6 to 8:30. Anyone is welcome for a $10 cover charge. There will be a raffle for $2 a ticket, plus a silent auction, culminating in the presentation of the “fund of hope” to Vickers. Croft wants the amount of the fund to be a surprise, but she did say expectations for the amount have doubled, thanks to the support of businesses and individuals.

To get more information or to register for the race, visit rayofliferace.com.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Vickers said. “I never thought I’d be my own event.”