Therefore encourage one another and build one another up,
just as you are doing.
1 Thessalonians 5:11
I looked up the website for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life and searched for my cancer center. My physician’s assistant asked me to join their team at my appointment that day. I read through the information and on a whim, signed up and formed my own team. As a cancer patient, I was always willing to help a good cause and I thought it would be fun.
I chose the team name “Jen’s Confetti Crew”, set a goal of $500 for my fundraising efforts, and brainstormed ideas for our table. We centered our activities around Proverbs 16:24.
My husband cut out a beehive bean bag toss game from a piece of wood and I painted it. My mom sewed bean bags with bee printed fabric. My husband and my son constructed a wooden honeycomb form backed with chicken wire to collect prayers written on yellow and white paper. We filled a flowerpot with lollipops and decorated it with buzzing bees. My brother’s company donated sunshine colored shirts for our team. I ordered a yellow flag and wrote the names of those we were walking for in honor and in memory and we planned to carry it around the track throughout the day. I borrowed a pop up tent, table, and chairs from friends. It took an army and it was a lot of work but everything looked great.
We packed it up and headed to the track early in the morning and set up in time for the opening ceremony. Children on the track held signs that read “1 year” up to “10 years”. My heart sank. I assumed the years were survivor years. Because I had metastatic breast cancer, I was not technically a ‘survivor’. Did I count the years since my first diagnosis? My second? I debated this in my head and with my friends until one of them said, “You are a survivor. You’re still here.”
She was right. I was still here. It was almost 7 years since my first diagnosis. I had been living with cancer for 7 years. I said a silent prayer, so full of gratitude for 7 more years of marriage, 7 more years to raise my kids, 7 more years to spend time with my family and friends. I swallowed the enormity of those thoughts deep in my soul, not allowing myself to fully absorb the emotions swelling inside.
As the opening ceremony began, we realized the signs meant the number of years of participation in that particular Relay for Life, which was celebrating 10 years. This was our first year so we waited our turn, then walked down from the bleachers and onto the track for our first lap. I took a deep breath and my first step. It was the beginning of a wonderful day.
Friends and family arrived throughout the day to check out our tent, eat, and walk a lap or two with me. Everyone took turns carrying the flag but my son carried it the most. Mike played volleyball and whiffleball and football with the kids in the field behind our tent all day. There was live music, workouts, dance performances as well as doughnut-eating and hula hoop contests. People stopped to write a prayer, toss a bean bag, and offer encouragement and support. We hugged and laughed and walked all day long.
With every lap, I felt more gratitude. I was thankful for my friends who showed up for me. I was thankful for the ability to walk the track. I was thankful for the beautiful day and this awesome event and that I was still alive to be a part of it. The day was fun and the crowd buzzed with excitement. I was distracted by the smiles and hugs, but felt those emotions bubbling up as the day continued. Swallow it down, Jen.
When evening came, Mike and I were treated to a catered dinner for survivors and caregivers. He didn’t like the term ‘caregiver’ but I made him go anyway. He takes care of me and our family in every way possible. We sat next to a lovely couple and talked a little cancer and a lot of baseball. From our seats on a balcony, I looked over the field, the tents, the people and took in the whole event. Once again, I checked those feelings at the door of my heart. At the end of the dinner, we gathered downstairs in the tunnel beside the track to get ready for the Survivor Lap.
As we made our way through the tunnel, I noticed the booths, the stands, and the track were empty. All the people lined the inside of the track. When they announced us, the music played, and the crowd clapped and cheered. Although I had attended Relay for Life events in the past, I never walked the Survivor Lap before. Mike felt uncomfortable walking with me but they invited caregivers to go as well, and I needed him there. I walked that track many times that day with family and friends but at that moment, the track felt unfamiliar.
The mood was different. The lighthearted buzz that filled the place earlier in the day morphed into a more serious one, but with a powerful energy of support and encouragement. I squeezed my husband’s hand and held back the tears that welled in my eyes. as I took in that moment.
The emotions of the day erupted and caught me off guard.
As I walked onto the track, that wall I was build ing around my heart all day began to buckle under the pressure as those emotions fought to come out. I had been through so much. I suffered the gut punch of diagnosis, chemo, surgery, reconstruction, radiation only to be hit again with the news my cancer spread a couple years later; and this time, would be on treatment for the rest of my life. I absorbed the news and stood firm in my faith. I dove into my writing and service projects and worked hard proving to myself and to others that I was okay. I pushed past the bad as I focused on the good. I told myself I was strong and I could get through anything. I walked around every day in the grips of this terrible disease, but vowed not to let it break me.
With each step, I felt the fear and the pain and the anguish and the dread from the last 7 years settle into my bones. The memories of the IVs and the surgeries and the scans and the side effects washed over me like a big storm cloud that suddenly darkened the sky. The reality of an uncertain life lived in 3 month segments with no finish line hit me like a unexpected wave of the ocean.
My legs were heavy. My world fell silent. I saw the crowd clapping but I couldn’t hear a thing and felt like I was watching the whole thing from outside of my body. My breath got stuck in my lungs as I tried desperately to quiet the noise inside my soul while I held it together on the outside. I was about to break.
Then as I turned the corner, I saw them.
And I heard them, only them.
My family stood at the edge of the track, a small but energetic tribe in their sunshine shirts. They smiled. They clapped. They cheered. They jumped up and down. My son waved that big yellow flag as hard as he could.
They cheered for me, and the crowd cheered for me. They cheered for all of us. I remembered that morning as I second guessed if I was truly a survivor. The fact that I still walked this earth, and this track, after all I had been through, made me a survivor.
I survived the day the doctor told me I had cancer, the day I had my port surgery and my first round of chemo. I survived the long night I prayed I would die because I was in so much pain. I survived the day those clippers ran across my scalp releasing clumps of lifeless hair to the floor. I survived those reconstruction appointments lying on my back for 8 hours willing myself not to breathe because it hurt so much. I survived hearing “your cancer has spread”, more radiation, and 44 rounds of my first line of treatment. I survived the pain of losing friends to this disease. I survived losing friends because of this disease. I survived the hurtful comments of those who didn’t understand my disease.
I didn’t have to wonder any longer if I was a survivor.
I knew I was a survivor.
That yellow tribe cheering me on made me a survivor. If not for them, I wouldn’t have made it through the devastating blows, the bad days, and the sleepless nights. If not for them, I wouldn’t have had the inspiration to keep fighting through the pain and the fear. If not for them, it would have been so easy to just give up.
But I didn’t. I kept going.
I continued around that track, my weary legs finding strength again as those painful emotions evaporated and I was overwhelmed by gratitude for that very moment. I looked over and saw staff from my cancer center cheering from the sidelines. They kept me going too. They provided the care and treatment that kept me alive, but they did so much more than that. They were the smiles on the hard days, the comforting words during the uneasy days, the calming presence during the scary days. They offered kindness and they offered support.
As we made our way around the last corner of the track, the crowd was larger and the cheers grew louder. I could no longer hold back the tears but as they fell, they washed away the bad memories and the hard emotions. They wiped my soul clean and allowed me to leave those tough emotions behind me. Although I was filled with gratitude, I felt lighter. I was filled with a sense of purpose and another feeling I couldn’t distinguish, but I knew it felt good.
I earned that lap. I earned every step.
I was still here. I was a survivor. I earned that title, and I owned it.
Later, the track was lined with luminaries that created a beautiful glow on the field and sent a wave of sadness across my heart. Every one of those bags represented someone who was touched by cancer – someone who heard those words, “you have cancer’, someone who endured treatment, someone who walked alongside them, someone who lost their life to cancer, someone who missed them. All those luminaries shined their light, and what an amazing light it was.
At the end of the closing ceremony, the word HOPE stood tall on the bleachers across the field and was filled with light, one letter at at time.
That was it. That was the feeling that tugged on my heart at the end of the survivor lap. If I survived all that was behind me, then I could walk boldly into the future with full faith that God would take care of me through whatever came next.
God gave me the strength.
God provided me with a team of doctors and nurses who had knowledge and compassion that protected and comforted me. God surrounded me family and friends who wrapped me in love and support that carried me through the joyful and the difficult days. God rallied the volunteers for the Relay for Life, and would sustain them in their work hard until events like this were no longer necessary.
God gave me hope.
The memories of that day would live in my heart forever. I was grateful for the loved ones who stopped by that day, and the ones who were there in spirit. I was grateful for the cheers and claps I heard and felt as I walked that survivor lap. That sound would forever be a soundtrack in my heart. I was grateful that my treatment was working, and I was physically able to participate in that event that day. I was grateful for the opportunity to walk for all those who couldn’t walk themselves.
I was grateful for hope.
God bless all those affected by this disease.
God bless the volunteers and the participants who made this day possible.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart.