For Lydia Kemerling Back, her mind went to Ricky Martin.
“He was coming to town later that year, and I had tickets,” she says. “I kept telling my doctors I can’t be sick when I see Ricky Martin.”
Kemerling Back, Walgreens customer service associate in Whitehall, Ohio, had previously gotten a benign lump removed after it turned up on a routine mammogram. Nine years later, in 1999, her mammogram revealed another lump that her doctor first assumed was scar tissue. Further testing, however, confirmed it was stage 2 breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She would have to undergo a lumpectomy, radiation and at least six months of chemotherapy.
But Kemerling Back was determined to beat it—not just for Ricky Martin’s sake, but because she’s a positive thinker. She’s a people person known for her upbeat attitude. She didn’t want to undergo chemotherapy, knowing she’d lose her hair and feel sick. But understanding it was necessary to get back to full health, she agreed to treatment. Now, 23 years later, she’s happily cancer-free.
“I came out the other side, and I always try to maintain the positivity,” she says. “Once the chemotherapy was done, I had to see my oncologist for check-ups every three months for 10 years. And once we hit 10 years, he said, ‘I think we need a divorce.’ And I said, ‘Me too. I’m done with you!’”
In the meantime, Kemerling Back worked at Walgreens, where she’s been for 13 years. As a former beauty consultant and participant in Walgreens Feel More Like You program, she wears a breast cancer survivor pin on the lapel of her uniform. This indicates to customers that she is an expert in beauty-related guidance for those fighting cancer and is open to answering any questions they might have.
“I love talking to customers about the products,” says Kemerling Back. “They come in and know I’m a breast cancer survivor, so they’ll ask me what kind of lotion to use or what makeup will help them. It’s all about what can make them feel better.”
As a result, Kemerling Back has twice received Walgreens’ Champion of Champions Award for Corporate Social Responsibility, a companywide honor that recognizes her contributions to her community at work. But it’s when she’s out and about in her community when her contributions to the fight against cancer truly shine.
It was her first store manager, Sacoya Henderson-Gilliam, who initially inspired Kemerling Back to get involved in the Columbus Race for the Cure, an annual fundraising event in support of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Having become familiar with the event through a friend, Henderson rallied the store’s team members together to form a team about 10 years ago, and Kemerling Back has been an advocate for the race ever since. Her energetic spirit comes alive at local events, and she’s frequently recognized as “the woman smiling and dancing” at races and walks.
Her joyfulness has not gone unnoticed, and in early 2022, a Race for the Cure coordinator, Lindsay Collins, sent Kemerling Back an email with an unexpected request: Could they use her photo for billboards to promote their spring race in downtown Columbus?
Collins knew Kemerling Back was familiar to the community and could encourage registration for the race.
“Lydia has been a wonderful part of our Columbus Race for the Cure for many years, always has a smile on her face and brings such positive and supportive energy,” remarks Collins. “We knew Lydia would be a perfect person to represent our local event and spirit.”
She agreed, expecting there to be one billboard on display on the side of the highway. But 2022 would mark the 30th anniversary of the Columbus Race for the Cure and a return to in-person races after COVID-19. The foundation was determined to make a splash.
Komen put up 10 billboards throughout the Columbus area showcasing Kemerling Back holding a sign denoting her then-22 years cancer-free, alongside her familiar beaming smile. A few people who walked into her Walgreens store in the weeks preceding the event would recognize her, she recounts with a laugh.
The race was a success, with thousands of participants hitting the road, according to Collins. With a DJ, a larger venue at North Bank Park and a Walgreens team led by Kemerling Back’s district manager, Adel Rabner, more than $686,000 was raised that day for the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
“I’ve seen the difference Komen has made for cancer research and for the cancer patients themselves,” says Kemerling Back. “Not only does the money go toward funding research, it goes toward driving patients to chemo appointments, it can go toward buying wigs. The more I get involved, the more I see what they do for the patients and the community.”
In her mind, cancer is behind her. What’s more important is that her last day of chemotherapy was 23 years ago, the day before the Ricky Martin concert. She felt sick, but determined as ever, she made it to the show.