Step-by-step toward a cure for breast cancer

By Michael Rappaport

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” observed Lao-tzu. Audrey Loeb – the founder and chair of The Weekend to End Breast Cancer, a 60 km two-day walk to raise funds for research, next weekend in Toronto – would certainly agree with the revered Chinese sage. She could add that the first step is often the hardest.

“Nobody would concede that [the walkathon] would be successful,” declares Loeb, a condo law specialist and counsel in the Toronto office of Miller Thomson LLP. “Everybody thought we were out of our minds… we couldn’t find a sponsor.”

The reasons for this lack of faith? “Nobody ever did a fundraiser that set a minimum requirement,” Loeb explains. People who want to participate in the walkathon must first, raise a minimum of $2,000 and second, must walk 60 km over two days.

Skeptics argued the entrance fee was too high, the commitment was too onerous and the public reaction would be tepid at best. In fact, the exact opposite happened. “People responded overwhelmingly,” Loeb exclaims. “What’s so special about the weekend is that people who had never raised a penny in their life, found a way to raise the money, people who had never exercised a day in their life started to exercise.”

In the face of so much skepticism, how did the Weekend to End Breast Cancer get off the ground? Seven years ago, Loeb, who was on the board of the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, was handed a challenge: find new fundraising sources beyond private donations and the foundation’s annual lottery. In June 2001, Loeb did the Avon Three Day Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago. Completing this arduous walkathon – which was a 60 mile ordeal instead of a more bearable 60 kilometers – transformed Loeb into a believer. “I was blown away. I couldn’t stop raving about this experience.”

Despite nagging doubters, Loeb persuaded the board to explore holding a similar event in Toronto. Right off the bat, however, she encountered two problems. First, the company that had run the walk in Chicago had gone bankrupt. Second, when she managed to contact two former employees of the defunct company who were interested in reviving the walk, she was informed that they would have to raise half-a-million dollars before the foundation could either pull the plug on the event or break even.

Thankfully, Loeb isn’t easily deterred. Working about 20 hours per week on top of her busy practice at Miller Thompson LLP, Loeb succeeded in launching the inaugural Weekend to End Breast Cancer in Toronto in Sept. 6, 2003 — a mere 15 months after she did the walk in Chicago. Almost 4,000 women participated and over $12.5 million was raised. For Loeb, whose best friend died of breast cancer in her 30s and whose sister is a breast cancer survivor, that glorious weekend at the end of summer shines brightly as one of the highlights of her life.

Surprisingly, Loeb confides that teaching, not law, was her first career choice. But her parents pushed her to go to law school. Indeed, Loeb jokingly dedicated her text book on condo law to her “mother who always knew I wanted to be a lawyer.”

When Loeb graduated from Osgoode Hall law school in the early 1970s there were few choices for women lawyers. She considers herself fortunate to have landed a position at the Ontario Ministry of Justice Real Property Branch. Few firms wanted to hire a young married woman back then, since it was assumed they would get pregnant and leave. In another stroke of luck, Ontario’s Condominium Act was being overhauled, and Loeb was given the opportunity to tour the province to solicit feedback and act as a public spokesperson for the ministry, which allowed her to develop her expertise in what was then a fledgling field.

In 1980, Loeb left the Ontario government, accepted a teaching position at Ryerson College and opened a real estate law practice with another lawyer. In 2000, she joined Miller Thompson LLP. Today, Toronto is the “condo capital of North America” – there are more condos under development or under construction in the GTA than in New York City – and Loeb’s practice is thriving.

Although Loeb is no longer on the board of the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation, she continues to do the walkathon every year. Last year about 5,500 people participated in the walkathon in Toronto. In its first five years, its raised $60 million for the foundation. The walk has also spread to several major cities across Canada, where it’s held over different weekends during the summer. In Ottawa, the prime minister’s wife, Laureen Haper, completed the walk in June. This Sept. 5-7, look for Loeb along the path as she completes her sixth walk in Toronto.

Step-by-step, the cure becomes closer.