Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Survivor Lap

Saturday May 19 to Sunday May 20 was my first Relay for Life event.

A year ago, I'd barely heard of Relay for Life.  In May of 2011, I was just beginning to navigate the road of breast cancer.  At the time of Relay last year, I hadn't been officially diagnosed yet.  I had just started the testing.  I was "only" a renal cancer survivor - 4 months out from surgery.  I remember in April of 2011, my friend, Carrie Blankenship (a Relay Goddess), asked if I would like to come walk the Survivor Lap at Relay 2011.

That felt like such a weird invitation to me.  Sure, I'd had cancer.  Renal cancer.  Sure I'd lost part of my kidney and recovered from a difficult and painful surgery - but I didn't *REALLY* feel like I'd had cancer.  I had heard about people suffering through surgeries and then chemo and radiation and losing their hair and so much more - but all I'd done is had a teeny little bit of a kidney loped off.  What right did I have to walk a Survivor Lap among those who'd lost so much and suffered so deeply.  I didn't really feel like I'd had cancer.  My journey was too easy.  Cancer was "easy" for me - snip off part of a kidney and I was done!  Sure it was scary and life changing to hear, "You have cancer."  Yadda Yadda Yadda. But, I wasn't a card-carrying cancer survivor (or so I thought).  I told Carrie, "Maybe next year..."

And then...I found out that I did, indeed, have breast cancer.  If cancer hadn't changed me before, it did then.  I knew the road ahead would be agonizing.  I didn't know the half of it.

As the planning began in September of 2011 for the 2012 Relay, I went to the monthly meetings.  Carrie talked to me a lot about starting my own team for Relay.  Did I want my own team?  Did I want to be "in charge" of something?  I wasn't sure I was up to it.  I was in the middle of chemo and every day I faced new challenges, scary side effects and dilemmas as to what to wear on my bald head!  This alone took up a lot of my time.  Could I really tackle putting together a Relay team too?

After going to three meetings, in January 2012, I officially went to the Relay for Life page and signed up.  I did it.  I was finished with chemo, my hair was growing back, I could do this.  My friends rallied around me and joined too.  We made plans and coordinated fundraisers.  In early May, I was given my purple shirt designating me as a Survivor.

Talk of the Survivor Lap began again.  I knew this time, I'd have to walk.  Had I really had cancer?  Wasn't this all just a terrible nightmare?  Would walking around that track as a "Survivor" make it REAL?  Most worrisome: What if I tripped?! (That is something I would totally do!)

At around 10 a.m. at the High School Track was the official start of Relay 2012.  All participants were called into the stands and opening ceremonies began.  After speeches, the singing of anthem, etc; Cancer Survivors were called down to the track.  Starting with those Survivors of 25 years or more.  Quite a few people trickled onto the track.  Then 20-25 year Survivors - more people filled the track.  And so it went - more and more people, men and women, old and young, filed down.

As "Survivors of 4 years" was called, my teammate Brenda Dykgraaf joined the crowd.  Then, 3 years, 2 years and then, "Survivors of 1 year!"  I got up then.  It hadn't really been a year but I thought that was the last category (it wasn't - they called 6 months or less as well).  I ambled my way down to the track amid some cheers from the my friends and family.  It all felt so silly - they were cheering for me?   "Pshaw!  It was nothing!" I thought embarrassed.

As goofy as I am, I don't really like to be the center of attention.  I was mortified to discover that I was in the back of the crowd since I was one of the last ones to be called down and all the other Survivors had already started walking.  I didn't want to be LAST!  How awkward!  I sped up and managed to pass a couple of people so I felt better.  (Okay, one guy that I passed was in a wheelchair - I'm not proud of this...okay, yes I am...)

I talked to a few people around me, including my friend and fellow survivor, Stephanie Strom and her neighbor, another Survivor, also named Stephanie.

Halfway around the field is where your "caregivers" join you on the lap.  Really, everyone on my team, nearly everyone I know, could have joined me!  So many people pitched in to take care of me and my family for the last year!  However, only my family did come - my 10 year old daughter running to meet me first.  Hugging me, she grabbed my hand and looked up at me and said, "I love you Mommy."  Following her was my husband and 7 year old son.

As I held hands with my daughter and husband (the 7 year old refuses to hold Mom's hand now - hmph!), we finished the lap.  About 3/4 way around, I had the opportunity to go up the ramp and have lunch with other Survivors - but I opted to finish the lap with my family.  It didn't seem right to have them finish that important lap without ME!  I was the whole reason we were all there!

We did finish that lap together just as we'd walked the cancer journey together.  I couldn't have done the lap alone just as I couldn't have beat cancer alone.

I had been reluctant about the Survivor Lap.  Sure, I'd earned it, I suppose.  But, as I walked, I thought of all the people that weren't there walking - those people that had lost their battle with cancer.  To see the sea of purple shirts walking the track as Survivors was inspiring - but you can't help but think of all the people that aren't there.  Cancer takes too many people.

But, I realized part way through the lap that I was there walking FOR those people!  We all were!  Sure we were Survivors in our purple shirts - but, as we walked that lap, we didn't only represent ourselves, but all those before us - all those that fought cancer and lost.

In years to come, let's hope that we see MORE purple shirts out there - more purple shirts meaning not that we've "invited" more people - but that MORE people have SURVIVED!

And then someday - we won't need a Relay Survivor Lap.  There will be NO Cancer Survivors - because there will be NO ONE that had Cancer.


(My entire Relay story (not just the Survivor Lap) is coming...)


  1. I can't see through my tears to type anything comprehensible. xoxo

  2. I too can't see through my tears.