My sister-in-law, Sara, has been involved in Relay for Life and other events associated with the American Cancer Society for several years. She asked me to do an event last year, but it was still way too close to my surgery and radiation treatments, and getting hit by a pickup truck while riding my bike put the final kibosh on that possibility.
Still, I knew there would be other opportunities, and perhaps the perspective gained by time and distance would give me an increased wisdom. So when she asked me to speak at a dinner to the organizers of her Relay for Life event, I said, "Yes!" I spoke to a room of about 60 organizers, the people who put the boots on the ground for this kind of event. It was a great event, and a fantastic opportunity to say thank you to the people who have funded the research that kept me alive.
At some point, someone asked Sara (or Sara simply took it upon herself, more likely) if I would speak at the actual Relay for Life event, as the Survivor Speaker. There is a tradition that a survivor tells his or her story to help kick off the event. I was unbelievably touched, and honored, and of course I said yes.
If you've never been to one, it's a 24-hour team event that encourages people to raise money, and have a team member walking for the full 24 hours to raise money for cancer research. I got to the event and it was HOT. VERY HOT. Still, at least it wasn't raining. I met up with Sara as well as many of the organizers whom I had met at the dinner. I was immediately greeted as a family member, and the warmth of that experience, those people will remain with me forever. It's a unique brotherhood/sisterhood, to be certain. The event kicked off with The Star Spangled Banner and a prayer, then it was my turn to speak. It was a little daunting to speak in front of 400+ people (one estimate was 600+) and the topic had me choked up in several parts, especially when I talked about my family. Still, I could feel the support there, almost tangible.
After I spoke, a doctor spoke about his experiences, then a sweet little girl sang America the Beautiful. I saw her later and she said, "YOU'RE THE GUY THAT TALKED ABOUT SURVIVING CANCER!" I said, "Yes, and you're the girl who sang so beautifully--thank you!" We both smiled and walked on...
Then it was time for the official kickoff to the event, where everyone walks a lap of the track, led by the survivors. It sounds almost corny, typing it out, but it makes me tear up, even now, just thinking about it, side by side with people who have survived cancer, being led by two children, survivors, carrying the ACS banner. Behind us were family, friends, organizers and countless people who are just sick of this disease killing people.
Because she had me there, Sara was determined to maximize my capabilities at every point she could. Another tradition is for teams to design their tent around a theme. Some teams were just getting started, others were obviously more organized and elaborate in their presentations. I knew which one was the winner as soon as I saw it: Rocky Balboa. They had a ring with staged battles between The Champ and cancer, a ring card that counted the hours down like rounds, signposts to all of the best (read as: my favorite) spots in Philadelphia. In short, it was awesome. WINNER!
It was almost time for me to go, but there remained one more thing I wanted to be a part of. There is a remembrance walk as the sun begins to fade. The sun went down and they lighted luminaries around the track, some "In Memory of..." others "In Honor of..." I found mine, donated by Sara, on a bleacher, spelling out the word HOPE into the night. It seemed the right place to be for me...