Sunday, May 19 I woke up with a song in my heart and in my body as well. Unfortunately, the latter tune was decidedly off-key. My tradition of aches and blisters continued, as it was the morning after I had participated in the Culver City Relay For Life, and I wouldn’t have traded a moment of it.
As I prepared to head over to West Los Angeles College to walk in the Relay Saturday morning, I quickly went through my checklist: envelope with donations; pens; writing pad; snacks; medication; folding chair; drawing of my late friend, Judy Glazer, to wear around my neck; sunscreen; wide-brimmed hat with ribbons bearing the names of those my sponsors and I wanted to honor; and a very special bracelet to wear as a talisman (more about that later).
Cancer has got to go. Only two days before Relay I learned from a dear friend who is one of my sponsors that the previous week lung cancer had claimed her friend Marilyn, a loving, philanthropic woman who is grievously missed by her family and all who knew her. One more ribbon . . . one more loss . . . one more reason to walk . . .
The event, which had a full program of activities with ceremonies, presentations, games and great entertainment was, in the words of the inimitable Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again,” evoking memories of my first walk for the American Cancer Society in 1992, the year following my diagnosis of breast cancer, as well as the many walks that followed. I always look forward to seeing familiar faces, playing catch-up, meeting new people and hearing their intriguing and inspirational stories.
The presentation by Susan Shachory Glick, the Survivor Speaker, was powerful. Her reasons for being a passionate warrior in the war against cancer keep mounting because I learned that on the Monday prior to Relay a very good friend of hers lost her brother to colon cancer following a diagnosis 10 months ago. Glick stepped in to assist with funeral arrangements and a memorial service.
It was the good fortune of all who heard Glick speak Saturday morning that she had met Linda Hirsh, the Relay Event Chair, at the Heroes of Hope conference in northern California in October 2012.
“Linda and I, along with about 50 other people, were chosen to represent the State of California as Heroes of Hope for the American Cancer Society,” she said. “We go to events such as Relay and tell our story to spread hope among cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and others. The American Cancer Society was so instrumental in my journey. I’m so grateful for everything they’ve done. As long as I have a voice, I will continue to speak to eradicate this disease and to bring awareness that we must continue to fight. There is no other option.”
Glick, a Stage III breast cancer survivor, had everyone’s rapt attention as she shared her story, a story that underlined the importance of being vigilant about following your instincts and advocating for yourself.
“I had an abnormal mammogram in September of 2010 and was asked to return for a follow-up mammogram because they thought it was a false positive,” she said. “After a second abnormal mammogram, they gave me an ultrasound and the radiologist couldn’t find anything, so he determined it was probably a benign cyst and asked me to ‘wait six months, see if it grows, and come back for a follow-up then.’”
Glick emphatically refused and insisted on a second opinion.
”After a third abnormal mammogram and another ultrasound from a different radiologist, they found the tumor,” she said. “The first radiologist was looking in the wrong place and couldn’t see it from where he was looking. They did a core biopsy and three days later I got a phone call that it was cancer. That same day I received a letter in the mail from the first radiologist saying it was nothing more than a benign cyst, and to come back for a follow-up mammogram in six months. I never would have lived six months.”
A rough road lay ahead, including ” two lumpectomies, a sentinel node biopsy that tested positive for cancer in my lymph nodes, an axillary node biopsy (21 lymph nodes were removed – 19 were cancerous), 16 rounds of chemo over five months, a double mastectomy, a staph infection, a divorce trial, five weeks of radiation, two reconstructive surgeries and follow-up revisions.”
Despite all that, she emphasized that she doesn’t think of herself as a victim but as “chosen.”
“I was chosen to live and I was given a second chance at life,” she explained. ”I knew when I was diagnosed that it wasn’t my time yet and I still had work to do. Working to eradicate cancer and spreading hope is part of my life’s work. Today I am healthy and strong and I tell everyone I know to fight. If they can’t fight for themselves, I tell them to fight for their spouse, their children, their grandchildren, their parents, their friends. Giving up is NOT an option.”
Adding that “not everything that came out of cancer was bad,” Glick said she “really can get ready in 15 minutes. Food tastes much better when you’re not on chemo. My hair is back now, but wearing a wig saved me tons of money at the hair salon. I learned to forgive people who couldn’t ‘deal with it.’ I learned I had friends that I thought were acquaintances. I became involved with the American Cancer Society, who gave me my first wig and let me look like me. As long as I looked like me, I held onto hope. I went to Look Good, Feel Better and they reminded me I’m a woman.
“Cancer can take away my hair, my breasts, even my strength, but it can’t take away my attitude and my belief in myself. Cancer can’t take away hope unless you let it. If I’m playing tennis and I’m down 5-0, I will fight to win a game. You can take me out at 6-1, but never bagel me at 6-0! Being a cancer patient was the last on my list. First I was a woman, a mom, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a neighbor, an entrepreneur, a speaker. Way down on that list, I was a cancer patient. I never let it identify who I was because if I did, it would control my life. I never let it control my life.”
The several miles she walks her chocolate Lab every day are special because “it’s my time with my dog, to smell the flowers, enjoy the outdoors and appreciate life. I’m very strong, very healthy and my numbers are off the charts. I’m on chemo for five years, just passed my halfway mark and am determined to beat the odds. I’m a fighter. We need to be fighters to win this war.” It’s not surprising that when this USC graduate thinks of cancer, her mind goes to “the Trojan football games we would watch each week. FIGHT ON!!”
As I circled the track, thankful for allies like Glick, I was surrounded by people whose stories could easily fill not just a book but a library.
Sherwood Kingsley, whose father had Hodgkin’s disease and mother had colon cancer, is a survivor of oral cancer and a tireless advocate for the American Cancer Society. I have known him for several years as he is a constant presence at Relays. As a CPA who’s used to working with numbers, he’s determined to see the numbers of people succumbing to cancer sharply reduced. Accordingly, his volunteer activities have included going to Washington as a Legislative Ambassador to meet with lawmakers in order to persuade them to support laws and policies that will help people fight cancer.
“The three most feared words in the English language, ‘You have cancer,’ changed my life,” he said. “Prior to hearing these words on Dec. 7, 1995, I lead a reasonably healthy life. Now I follow the American Cancer Society guidelines of exercising five or more days a week. My diet now has five to seven servings of fresh fruits and vegetables every day. In this beautiful, sun-drenched city, I use sunscreen.”
He advised everyone to “please get your normal screening exams. Learn cancer’s warning signals. Be proactive with your health. Call the American Cancer Society’s 24/7 hotline with cancer-related questions: 1-800-227-2345. Urge your elected representatives to fully fund cancer research. Do not fear cancer. Cancer research is making great strides against this disease. Live a healthy, long life and be happy.”
Flora Taub, another familiar face, was the event’s Survivor Chair this year. “I’m a survivor and find it interesting to speak with other survivors,” she said. “Every person has a different story, but they all involve having a fighting attitude and support. We all need people to help us out and I wonder if they know how grateful we are for that help – especially for the help we don’t ask for. That extra card or someone dropping off a meal that we can heat up that we need but can’t do for ourselves, or just a call when we need it. The Relay For Life celebrates survivors and this year it was great having so many survivors walking that first lap. We’re the lucky ones and we’re the examples that you can survive cancer!”
Linda Hirsh, the Event Chair, is a breast cancer survivor who has lost family members and friends to cancer. She initially became involved in Relay several years ago when “a dear friend of mine, Valerie, who lived in Westlake Village, started a team for Relay out in Conejo Valley. She’d had cancer in one breast and then seven years later in the other breast. So I gladly joined her team and walked with them.” A few years later her friend developed uterine cancer, which proved fatal.
“My friend Brad died just seven weeks after Valerie,” Hirsh continued. “He had been diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer and lived for two years. I was the person who took him to all his doctor visits, chemo treatments, radiation, etc. I had been friends with both Brad and Valerie for 35 years, and lost them both in a span of seven weeks.
“We all came here today with our own reason to Relay, because in some way cancer has affected all of us and we want to make a difference for others. I hope my commitment and involvement in Relay For Life will allow another cancer patient an easier journey.”
“I got involved with this event from the first year it came to Culver City,” said Chevy Sanchez, who became a widow in February. “I saw it as a perfect opportunity to involve the kids in community service in a fun, non-threatening environment. Dave and I worked together to get as many Culver City High School students to participate as possible. We were very successful for many years at getting his soccer players, track and cross country athletes – as well as my daughter and the cheerleaders! – to help wherever necessary. It was an event that the students looked forward to each year.
”Once Dave got diagnosed with his Stage IV pancreatic cancer on Feb. 1, 2012, we had to step back from a lot of activities that we once were able to do. I was SO proud of him when he mustered up the strength to actually help hold the survivor banner as he made it around the entire lap at last year’s Relay. He did it to show support for an event that has always meant a lot to us, now more than ever.”
Sanchez intends that she and her daughter will “try to be a lot more involved in next year’s event. This year was just a bit too soon for us to put ourselves out there. We need to find a way to make sure that cancer becomes just another treatable disease and nothing that needs to be feared. We need to be more powerful than cancer.”
And then there’s Maria (“Cookie”) Brambila, who had the unimaginable experience of learning, when her now teenage son was barely a toddler, that he had cancer.
“Chris was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma at 14 months of age, and immediately lost his left eye which was covered in tumor,” she said. “He was treated at CHLA, receiving chemotherapy, radiation and cryotherapy directly to the right eye, but the cancer was very aggressive and at the age of 2 1/2 he lost his right eye. He wears very natural-looking prosthetics now. He goes to Culver City Middle School, participated many years in Cub Scouts, participates in the Junior Blind Olympics every year and volunteers when possible at the Junior Blind of America, teaching adults that have just lost their vision how to read Braille. He is a typical teenager in every sense; he just can’t see. He is very smart and has an extremely keen sense of all his other senses.
“We are blessed to have him in our lives. We’ve met many wonderful people and formed lifelong friendships with many through his battle with cancer and now through his impairment.”
I wish I could have spent more time at the Relay, which I had to leave at 5:00 P.M. because of another commitment. In my almost nine hours there I banked a profusion of wonderful memories that included helping to hold the banner during the Survivor Lap; Mike Cohen’s great job as a masterful MC; the gracious welcoming remarks of Nabil Abu-Ghazaleh, president of West Los Angeles College; the proclamation presented by Culver City Mayor Jeff Cooper and Councilmember Jim Clarke declaring May 18, 2013 as Culver City Relay For Life Day; absolutely incredible entertainment; and a track lined with luminarias bearing loving messages that brought tears to my eyes.
Some of the laps I did alone, with every step a walking meditation as “thank you thank you thank you” ran through my mind. Some I did with old friends from Relay and some with people I’d just met. I walked about seven miles and I have the blisters to prove it. I was infused with the energy permeating the site and thoroughly enjoyed myself, especially after my good friend and longtime sponsor, Gail Sullivan, showed up to walk with me. It just wouldn’t have felt like Relay without her.
As I was completing this story I learned that this Relay had generated almost $45,000 (yay!) and I had been designated its highest individual fundraiser, having brought in $7,003. To my wonderful sponsors, words are inadequate to express the depth of my gratitude for recognizing and honoring the vital connection that links us all.
We are connected by grief. We are connected by hope. We are connected by our determination to make life better by “paying it forward,” so I thank my sponsors from the bottom of my heart for their compassion and generosity, and kudos to all who invested their time, talent and/or funds to support Relay For Life. I found it an absolute joy and privilege to participate.
Now, about that bracelet I mentioned earlier . . . I wore it all day Saturday, this special talisman that had been given to me by the friend whose portrait I wore over my heart. The words etched onto it reflected the philosophy of so many at Relay: “What Cancer Cannot Do – corrode faith, shatter hope, destroy peace, silence courage, invade the soul, steal eternal life, conquer the spirit, cripple love, kill friendship, suppress memories.”
And that, for me, was the message of the day.