Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Luminaria Ceremony

Tonight I had the opportunity to be the survivor speaker at UI's 2012 Relay For Life Kick-Off Luminaria Ceremony. Relay For Life is a fun-filled overnight event designed to celebrate survivorship and raise money for research and programs of your American Cancer Society. During the event, teams of 8-15 people gather the University of Illinois Track and Soccer Stadium and take turns walking or running laps. Each team tries to keep at least one team member on the track at all times. Relay For Life represents the hope that those lost to cancer will never be forgotten, that those who face cancer will be supported, and that one day, cancer will be eliminated. The kick-off was sponsored by UI's Chapter of Colleges Against Cancer (CAC). CAC is a nationwide collaboration of college students, faculty, and staff dedicated to eliminating cancer by working to implement the programs and mission of the American Cancer Society. With hundreds of chapters nationwide, CAC is showing the world that young people care and want to make a difference. I'd like to thank Alma, Christa and all the others for inviting me to speak.

My speech was as follows:

I lost
one breast
most of my hair
mental clarity
all sense of modesty
a few friends along the way
my life's work

I found
gray hair
tremendous respect for my family
true knowledge of who my friends are
new friends
a sisterhood with other survivors
a realization of how resilient I truly am
freedom to be my "true" self
roller derby

Two years, 1 month, 2 weeks and 5 days ago my life changed forever. I remember sitting in the doctor's office as the surgeon said those dreaded words, "You have cancer". I felt like I stepped into the middle of a silent hurricane. There was a roar and a rage that spun my life in a direction I had never anticipated. When you are told you have cancer, it amounts to being given a death sentence. All sorts of crazy thoughts run through your head. Mine were "Will I live long enough to see my daughter graduate High School? Graduate College? Get married? Watch my grandchildren grow up?". Next you realize that you have just set milestones to meet. Then you dive right into the self-pity. When you finally come up for air, you prepare for your recommended treatment. Then you vow to fight the cancer with all you've got and set out on your survivor's journey. And it can be a tough one. Your safety, security and optimism about your life and the future is shaken. The world is revealed as unfair. And with those three little words, I became a breast cancer survivor.

There is much discussion in the breast cancer world as to when you start marking the point at which you went from being an average Jane walking down the street to the "breast cancer survivor." Is it from the point of diagnosis? Is it from the point at which you had you surgery to remove the cancer? Is it when you are done with treatments? A "cancerversary" marks the annual recurrence of the date of a survivor's original diagnosis, although it can also mark any notable event in someone's cancer journey such as the date of the completion of treatment. Though these are all important milestones, for me the process of "surviving" began the minute I was diagnosed. If you are thrown into the pool and tread water for a while you don't count your journey from when you are pulled out of the pool, you mark it from when you were thrown into the water. Some days it seems like it has taken forever to get here and other days it seems like only yesterday.

September 21, 2009 is the day that my life as I knew it ended, and a new life began. Because no matter what the outcome, life is never the same after a cancer diagnosis. My cancerversaries feel rather momentous, partly because my life took such a dramatic change on the day I was diagnosed, but also because of the relief that I have made it through these past two years. I think about my cancerversaries with a combination of pride, dread, sadness, happiness, and relief. Sound schizophrenic? Welcome to the life of a cancer survivor. These past two years have been filled with ups and downs, good days and bad, and a lot of emotions. So what does one do to celebrate a cancerversary? Go out to dinner? Throw a party? Buy yourself something nice? My answer is this: you celebrate that you got to wake up this morning. And that's enough for me to want to pop a bottle of champagne. This may not be the life I ordered but it is the life I’m living. Today, I rarely think of the cancer, choosing instead to live life. While the diagnosis of cancer shattered the illusion that I was immortal, the most surprising side effect of cancer is that it has given me more courage than I ever thought possible. My life after cancer is more courageous, more honest and fuller than my life before. A cancer diagnosis encourages us to know both the fragility and the hopes of life, and with that knowledge to live as fully as possible. And like I always say, time flies when you're having cancer!

They then read this poem for the luminaria lighting:

I light a candle
A brightly shining flame
For all the ones who’ve gone before
Remembering each by name

And I light a candle
For those who live today
Who suffer with uncertainty
Praying one day for a change
And I light a candle

I light a candle for those who are still yet to come
That they will never face the pain when
The battle has been won

And I light a candle
For victories today
For survivors who have fought the fight
We celebrate today
And I light a candle

I light a candle
That every child will have the chance
To ride a bike, learn how to swim
Walk barefoot in the grass

And I light a candle,
That one day we shall light no more and
Offer up this simple prayer,
Praying one day for a cure
And I light a candle

Powerful stuff.

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