Relay for Life – Sandra Coopersmith

On Saturday, May 18, rejoicing that I am still here and able to do so, I will “walk the walk” with abundant gratitude at a very special event, one that I hope many will turn out for – the Culver City Relay For Life at West Los Angeles College.

Cancer is a disease that affects us all, both personally and by striking those we love, and it can be a nightmare to experience. This played out in a dream I had, and while I seldom remember my dreams, this is one I’ll never forget.

At the beginning of the dream I was lying on a white chaise, in a white nightgown, in a room with white walls, white carpeting and white drapes. The walls were so white they seemed to glow. I felt very peaceful in my calm, uncluttered and spotless sanctuary. But then I heard a noise at the window. My heart skipped a beat and my throat constricted when I realized several thugs were trying to gain entry. I knew they were only moments away from getting in, much too soon for me to escape, and if they saw me I was doomed.

I quickly hid behind the chaise, barely seconds before they broke in. They were raucous, coarse and brutal in appearance, and their leader brandished a spray can with which he proceeded to deface my beautiful, pristine wall. The swirls and splotches of graffiti were vile and ugly, and I felt like retching as I saw them spread across that once unblemished surface.

It was only a matter of time before they discovered me. If I were to have even a hope of surviving, I knew I needed to quell my terror, shake the victim mentality, use my wits and take whatever measures I could to control the situation. Taking a deep breath and willing myself to carry it off, I got up, walked over to the leader, put my hand on his arm and said, with great enthusiasm, “Excuse me, but you are amazing!”

He and his gang grew quiet as he looked at me in surprise. “What do you mean?” he asked, as he stopped spraying.

“Well, I’m an artist, and I know talent when I see it,” I said. “You are incredibly gifted. You have a stunning technique and your work, if properly marketed, could sell for a lot of money. Have you ever had lessons, or is this natural?”

“It’s natural,” he responded, as his gang nodded in assent. At that point I felt the tide turning in my favor.

And then I woke up. It was the morning of Nov. 11, 1991 and in just a few short hours my left breast would be amputated. As I drifted back into consciousness I was actually smiling because my metaphor of a dream was straight out of Psych 101, a textbook example if ever there was one. The smile was replaced with tears as I showered, my last time to do so with my body still intact. I could only hope that the graffiti had not extended beyond the wall, dripping down to ruin the carpet as well.

I guess I managed to divert the gang leader just in time, because in December of this year I will reach the landmark age of 75. These days that may not seem like such a big deal, but when I was diagnosed with cancer time morphed into a very big deal indeed and every tick tock resonates with meaning. My days of taking time for granted are long gone and I’m filled with wonder that I’ve come this far, with the American Cancer Society my vital companion during this journey.

In Southern California, especially, where the film industry reigns and the emphasis is on youth, beauty and vigor, it’s probably unusual to broadcast one’s age after a certain point. This is quite understandable because the mirror reflects changes that can evoke a sense of loss, the grains of sand in each person’s invisible hourglass are finite, and these are not realities we tend to welcome or embrace.

But cancer does indeed change one’s perspective, and I’m thrilled to celebrate the precious time I’ve been given. Each ache or visible sign of age denotes a détente with death, more time lived, more time to savor, to accomplish goals and to make a difference. That mirror is a powerful reminder to focus on infusing my life with joy, purpose and immense appreciation for this gift.

The universe works in fascinating ways and the older I get the more convinced I become of an underlying meaning and balance in our journey. Life has a funny way of coming full circle. Are some events just coincidental? I wonder . . . After you read the following anecdote you will know “the rest of the story,” to borrow a phrase from Paul Harvey.

Many years ago when I was closing commercial real estate loans for a mortgage banking company, I handled a project that was a real lulu: a business park in Culver City. This transaction had every level of complexity imaginable and I was in it from the groundbreaking. It involved a multimillion-dollar land sale/leaseback/leasehold loan in which one of our major lenders was also the ground lessor, and the ground lessee/borrowing entity included (as if the deal weren’t complicated enough) my boss, the owner of the mortgage banking company. And on top of that, the transaction closed in phases with additional modifications over the years. Actually, “lulu” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Some closings were akin to juggling flaming machetes. This was one of them, certainly heading my list of most challenging experiences.

And then that list took a mad shuffle with that closing resoundingly replaced in priority when, on November 4, 1991, I learned I had breast cancer. Trust me on this, the words you never want to hear come out of a doctor’s mouth are “I’m very sorry, but . . .”

I remember sitting with a dear friend that evening, alternating between tears, panic and sick jokes, and feeling as though I were hurtling through space minus map or compass. After comforting me as best she could, she fetched the telephone book, saying she would call the American Cancer Society. I distinctly recall her words, uttered calmly and firmly as if they were a mantra: “You have cancer, that’s who you call, that’s what they do, and THEY WILL HELP YOU.”

After thumbing through the directory she said she’d found an office right here in Culver City. When she told me the address a strange thing happened. My hopeless, helpless terror abated and I felt, for the first time that day, a day in which I’d fainted at the doctor’s office, that I would be okay. I took it as an excellent omen that the society was located in that very same business park I’d been so deeply involved in from its inception. Yes, there was balance in the universe, because the help I received was incalculable.

The American Cancer Society sent me a delightful Reach to Recovery volunteer, a woman who’d had breast cancer and could talk to me on a peer level. I was inspired to become one as well, an activity I’ve found immensely rewarding. Additionally, they provided me with drivers during my radiation treatments, which went on for several weeks. I don’t drive, and it would have taken three buses to get home from the hospital, adding yet another layer of awfulness. With a sharply depleted energy level, I was in poor shape to use public transportation.

As a point of information, although radiation wasn’t customary after a mastectomy, it was considered advisable in my case because of my small build and the potential for any errant cancer cells to migrate to my chest wall or skin. While radiation kills cancer cells that might still be in the area, it also kills the healthy cells. The cancer cells stay dead but the healthy ones regenerate, so there’s a lot of activity going on in the body. The cumulative effect of radiation can therefore be great fatigue. Everyone is different. Some patients breeze through radiation while some feel knocked out. After the third treatment I could barely get off the table, so those drivers were a great boon for me.

I also received free group therapy geared toward those newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The sessions, which were tremendously helpful to me, were held in the society’s Culver City conference room, ran for several weeks, and were conducted by a wonderful therapist who was a breast cancer survivor. The American Cancer Society continues to be my ongoing resource for reliable information.

And I’ve only covered my own personal experience with them. There are countless stories from other patients and their families. Many lives have been saved through the efforts of the American Cancer Society, which is the largest source of private nonprofit cancer research funds in the country. In fact, two of the three scientists receiving the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology are former American Cancer Society research grantees, bringing the number of Nobel Laureates among the society’s funded researchers to 46. For more information about the myriad services offered in fighting cancer through research, education, patient services and advocacy, please do check out their website, www.cancer.org, or call their 24/7 live information line, 1 (800) ACS-2345.

Linda Hirsh, a cancer survivor who for many years has put her heart and soul into helping others fight this disease, is not only the leader of the Walkettes team but also the volunteer Event Chair for the Culver City Relay For Life. She encourages everyone to attend on May 18, a day filled with fun and meaning, dedicated to celebrating the American Cancer Society’s commitment to hope, progress and answers as survivors, caregivers and those no longer with us are honored.

If you wish to participate or form a team, she is the contact person and can be reached either by email at [email protected] or by phone at (310) 213-1576. “People that show up the day of Relay will still need to register, for safety and liability reasons, and pay the $10 registration fee,” Hirsh said. “We would welcome their donations. When people register they will receive a wrist band, and that’s the way we know who belongs walking on the track.”

The weekend of May 18 will be a full one, starting with the Opening Ceremony that Saturday morning at 9 A.M., followed by the Survivors Lap at 9:30 A.M. An evening highlight will be the moving and memorable Luminaria Ceremony at 9 P.M., when those we’ve lost, those who have fought cancer in the past and those currently battling this disease are honored. The following morning at 8:30 A.M. the Fight Back Ceremony will be held, symbolizing the emotional commitment we each make to the fight against cancer. This will be followed by the Closing Ceremony at 9 A.M., a time to remember the lives of those lost and to celebrate that, through our participation in this Relay, we have acknowledged the seriousness of the problem and have taken an active part in working toward a solution.

I will not only be walking that Saturday as a member of the Walkettes team but will also be covering the event for culvercitycrossroads.com. If you attend I’d be delighted to meet you and will be easy to spot, wearing a wide-brimmed hat festooned with ribbons bearing the names of those my sponsors wish to honor. Additionally, around my neck I’ll be displaying a drawing I did of my late friend, Judy Glazer. She was a terrific person with a great sense of humor and one of the most devoted American Cancer Society volunteers I’ve ever known, exerting herself to raise funds and promote her local Relay For Life even while suffering from the pancreatic cancer that took her life so soon after her diagnosis.

Oh, Judy . . . If she could see me sporting all of the aforesaid paraphernalia, I just know she’d say something like, “What, you couldn’t arrange to get shot from a cannon while screaming ‘Support the American Cancer Society!’?”

Maybe next time . . .

www.culvercitysymphony.org

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