This past Friday evening I had the privilege to walk the Survivor's Lap during the opening ceremonies of the Cherokee County Relay for Life. My daughter's best friend, Meghan, had joined a team from her middle school to raise funds for the American Cancer Society - the "Official Sponsor of Birthdays". When we arrived at the high school hosting the event, it looked somewhat like the inner circle of the Daytona 500. Brightly colored tents everywhere, loud celebratory music blasting from the speakers on the stage, and a huge inflatable birthday cake covered in blow-up candles. It was a long drive to the school, the traffic was terrible (go figure - Friday afternoon at 5pm), and it was one of the first really hot days we've had here in the area.
I was wearing my "The Chemo Made Me Do It" t-shirt with a pink breast cancer ribbon on it. The kids and I walked around from tent to tent admiring all the creative ways people show their support and raise funds for cancer research. Rachel and Stephen excitedly pulled me in the direction of the Survivor Wall of Fame and helped me sign it, adding their own personal touch to my autograph.
To say that I attend these events with mixed emotions is an understatement of epic proportions. It is with a deeply grateful heart and tremendous pride that I call myself a 'survivor' and I have gained laser precision accuracy at spotting others in the same camp. There's something a little different about us and unless you are one, there's no way to explain it. We simply know each other. But I have to admit, there is an indescribable pit in my stomach that rears its ugly head when I see a man, woman, or child walking around with the telltale ill-fitting baseball cap. It forces me to remember. It smacks me in the face and screams, "I almost had you, too". And as proud as I am to be a survivor - as strong as I feel every day - it is my ghost whisperer. An unexpected ache or pain or an unusual lack of energy always provokes the inevitable "what if it's back?" in the deep recesses of my mind.
Thankfully, my kids were with me and Meghan was happy to introduce me to her classmates/team members. The emcee for the event called all the survivors to gather around the stage and after a beautifully patriotic national anthem, we all sang Happy Birthday to each other. Rachel and Stephen were on either side of me and before we started the first lap we heard a couple of stories from other survivors who had joined the celebration. One young man was diagnosed with colon cancer barely a year ago and shared about his treatments and prognosis. His young wife and son were sitting on the grass as close as they could get to the front of the stage, obviously proud of their warrior husband and dad who was fighting hard and winning his battle.
Then we heard from a young lady (barely 19 years of age) who is preparing for surgery this week. She has had FOUR cancer diagnoses in the last few years. Four! She is a beautiful young lady, full of energy and a positive spirit. She talked about her cancer as if she were sharing with us her volleyball schedule. I felt some very familiar emotions start to rise as she shared about the support of her family and friends, and the daily conflict of emotions. She even made a statement that I remember jokingly sharing upon my initial diagnosis, "I'm too stubborn to let cancer beat me."
As I was standing there I met two other ladies, Donna and Laurie, who less than a year ago were photographed at the lake together enjoying each other's friendship, their families, and life in general. And here they stood this night, both diagnosed within weeks of each other, currently in treatment, and bald. I briefly shared my story with them and introduced them to my little hero (Stephen) and my private nurse (Rachel). We chatted as only survivor sisters can and then Laurie looked at me and said, "can I ask you a question?" "Sure. Anything." She looked at me for a few long seconds and asked, "Is that your real hair?" I smiled. "Yes, every single strand of it." Smiles. Hugs. Hope.
We walked the survivor lap, my children and I, arm in arm. To see several hundred people standing on the inside track clapping, cheering, and waving was incredibly moving. Tears. I couldn't speak, and my kids don't see me like that very often. Rachel held my hand a little tighter. Stephen put his arm around my waist. And then I rounded that last curve and looked up. Meghan was standing there with her team, clapping and cheering like crazy. It got the best of all of us and as I started to run to meet her, she and the others broke away and ran right towards us. We met in a huge circle of hugs and cheers and smiles. And we walked that final stretch together. I turned around and looked back through the crowd of other survivors. A few paces back, Donna and Laurie were walking arm in arm surrounded by their circle of friends. Our eyes met and we exchanged a 'thumbs up'. New friends. New heroes. And a fresh reminder that beauty is often found in the most unexpected places.