Banishing the Stigma of Cancer
How do you fight the natural stigma against a deadly disease – cancer? With sheer numbers. Thousands of cancer survivors join forces each year in an event that not only raises funds for research, but unites all of us – survivors and healthy people alike – in support and love.
What’s it like to walk in a cancer fund-raiser? Let me show you.
It’s 6 a.m. on a gray July morning, the sun trying to break through the river-bottom fog at the local middle school in Hanover, NH. The occason? The annual fund-raising event for our local cancer center, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Some of the 3,000+ cyclists, set to ride anywhere from 25 to 100 miles, are hitting the road early. These are the hard-core bikers, the ones with form-fitting shorts and rainbow-hued shirts sporting sponsor logos. They’re serious. They gulp water, adjust toe clips, and disappear into the fog, legs pumping, heads down.
It’s 8:30 a.m., the fog starting to lift. My team, 19 members strong, gathers for a picture. Some of us kneel gingerly on the asphalt; we know it’ll be hard to haul ourselves up again. We reach around to hug one another’s shoulders, look at the photographer, and SMILE. We’ve raised $9,561 in pledges. It’s time to earn them. We get up and walk.
9 a.m. We stop in front of a Dartmouth College sorority house on a wide, tree-lined street. The sun has driven the fog away; the shade of an old elm tree feels good. A gaggle of sorority sisters, 20-year-old sophomores, giggle as they serve us Gatorade. The girls have dressed in costume: glitter and lycra, cleavage and tutus. We laugh together. I take their picture. We walk on.
11 a.m. Our 10K route has brought us back to the school. Most of my team is done for the day. Recent surgery, recent chemo, a recurrence… 10K is enough. We sit in the shade of a tent for awhile, checking blisters, resting sore knees. And then five of us leave the cool tent, and head out into the hot midday sun, tackling another 10K. Early on, we reach the 5K turnoff. We could turn here, and walk just 15K, instead of 20K. We don’t turn.
12:30 p.m. We’re starting to fade. My feet have never hurt this bad, ever. Pam, just diagnosed in June and 1 week past her lumpectomy, is cradling her arm. Dani stops to bandage her toes. Betty, the oldest in our group, is also apparently the fittest; she’s doing fine. We trudge along hot asphalt, single-filing into the shade whenever we can.
1:30 p.m. The school is in sight. Our slow pace quickens. We can smell hotdogs on the grill, hear the sound of a band playing, people cheering. We reach the finish line, an arch of balloons; we hug, get a friend to take our picture, then get out of the way as cyclists come pouring under the balloons to the sound of cheers.
It feels good to stop. The sun is hotter than ever. We unwind the yellow ribbons we’ve carried for 12 1/2 miles, ribbons on which we’ve written the names of those we’re walking for. My dad. My aunt; three uncles. Three friends, two taken by breast cancer. We tie the ribbons to a line where hundreds of yellow ribbons flutter in the hot wind. Our walk is over.
I see two little boys sitting on the curb. They can’t be more than 4 years old, but they’re wearing “Team Tara” T-shirts. I bend down and ask them, Did you walk for Tara? “Um-hmm.” Who’s Tara, I ask. “She’s in heaven,” says one boy. My eyes tear up. The other boy says, “She’s my mommy. She died.” I can’t answer through the lump in my throat.
This is why we walk. We have to end cancer, and it has to be soon. So that there will no longer be a little boy who tells me his mommy is in heaven.
This story was originally published in 2008.
How do you handle the stigma of cancer? Share a photo and your story by July 11 in the HealthCentral Live Bold, Live Now Photo Contest for a chance to win $500.