Something wasn't right. Andrée Rice had been coughing for months, a fierce, dry hack that would leave her panting after walking up...

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Something wasn’t right.

Andrée Rice had been coughing for months, a fierce, dry hack that would leave her panting after walking up eight stairs.

Her doctors ordered test after test. Then, one ordinary afternoon, she got the call.

The cancer is back, they said.

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Leave work and come to the hospital now.

May 23, 2003: the day when Rice learned the breast cancer she thought she had conquered in 1999 had spread to her lungs. The diagnosis was terminal.

She could have given up. Instead, in the last 26 months, the first-grade teacher beat cancer.

She met her idol Lance Armstrong on “Oprah.”

And she raised $4,500 to walk 60 miles in the Breast Cancer 3-Day event, which starts today.

“Two years ago, I couldn’t have gone half a mile,” says Rice, 41, of Bothell.

When cancer arrives and time turns finite, dates become as important as birthdays or anniversaries. Rice rattles them off now with a catch in her throat.

June 14, 1999: Rice’s first diagnosis. It was Stage I breast cancer. Nothing life-threatening, her doctors assured her. She had a lumpectomy and underwent chemotherapy and radiation. She believed the cancer would never return.

When it did, it crept in aggressively, invading her lungs, stealing her breath. Doctors took chest scans. The white hazy parts showed where the cancer has spread. Rice’s scan looked like a snowstorm, the doctors said.

They ran blood tests to gauge what they were up against. The results would show tumor markers, signs of how much cancer was in the body. A number of 25 was high. Rice was at 1,400.

Her husband, Bob, broke the news. “Hon, you gotta put the boxing gloves on.”

Rice took a deep breath. Then she dropped to her knees and prayed.

Beating “the beast”

Chemotherapy was different this time around. Every Thursday, for 22 months, Rice and her husband would drive to Group Health Cooperative on Capitol Hill where she would lie for one hour, the poisons eating away her cancer and, slowly, her spirit.

First, went the hair. Then the eyebrows and lashes. “I felt like my face was being erased,” she says.

But Rice’s Hawaiian blood made her a fighter. She had a 7-year-old daughter, Madison, and a husband to live for, not to mention a classroom full of children in Shoreline awaiting her return. Her colleagues had even donated their sick leave to Rice.

She and Bob turned the weekly chemo sessions into “dates,” where they would get lunch afterward, even if she wasn’t hungry. Madison helped her pick out hats and scarves, as though they were playing dress up. She saved her mother’s brown hair in a Ziploc bag.

Rice wasn’t ready to die. She had to see her little girl grow up, get married, have babies. She had to beat “the beast,” she says.

So on a brilliant January day, she stepped outside and walked.

Winning the lottery

Jan. 29, 2005: Rice got a phone call. Oprah Winfrey had granted Rice her wildest dream: to meet her hero, cancer survivor and six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. He gave her an autographed bike.

Rice was declared cancer-free two months later.

“It was like winning the lottery,” she said.

Doctors don’t say people with her kind of cancer are cured, she said.

Still, hope had returned.

A quote hangs on her wall. “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the number of moments that take our breath away.”

As Armstrong races toward his seventh win in the Tour de France this weekend, Rice will lace up her shoes and join thousands of others walking for a cure.

The timing, she says, couldn’t have been more perfect.

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

Breast Cancer 3-Day walk

Opening ceremonies for the Breast Cancer 3-Day walk begin today at 6:30 a.m. in Lake Sammamish State Park in Issaquah. About 2,500 participants will walk 60 miles. The walk starts at 7 a.m., then heads north through Bellevue and Redmond. It continues to Shoreline and then into Seattle where closing ceremonies will be held. The exact route isn’t being made public, even to the walkers, for traffic and safety reasons.

Walkers will travel an average of 20 miles a day. Participants will camp at sites set up with portable showers, bathrooms, food, tents and sleeping bags.

The Breast Cancer 3-Day is a series of fund-raising walks that take place throughout the country. Last year, the walks raised $26 million.

Eight-five percent of the net proceeds benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. The remaining 15 percent go to the National Philanthropic Trust, an independent nonprofit organization, which will manage the events and direct its portion of the proceeds to the NPT Breast Cancer Fund, a special fund for breast-cancer initiatives.