A friend once asked me, if I had the chance what would I say to cancer? God, could you imagine… I hate you. You made me hurt, bald, fat and sad. You took what should’ve been some of the happiest times in my life and made me hang out in a chemo wing instead. You made my mom and dad cry, my brothers worry, my friends scared. What did I ever do to you? Why me? Of course I would say all of those things... cancer is a horrible disease and chemo is an even worse experience. However, I would also say HA! right in cancer’s face. HA! I beat you. take that you big nasty bully. I fought you and I won. Nah nah nah. HA! I do triathlons now, you beep!! What do you think about that, cancer? Scared of ME yet?!
In January 2007 I had a cough… just a normal winter cold, nothing to worry about. A girlfriend developed a similar cough and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Since I was exposed to her I had to go get tested as well… that cool little bubble test, and due to direct exposure, a chest x-ray. The bubble came back clean, but the chest x-ray was abnormal. In an AWESOME example of bedside manner, I was told “its either a shadow or cancer.. we have to do some more tests and figure it out.” No way its cancer, I remember thinking. Stupid doctor, getting me totally freaked out about a shadow. It couldn’t be cancer - I was too young. I was just getting started in my big political career in Washington, DC. I was too cute, too fun, a good girl who went to church and was a freaking athlete! – I couldn’t be sick.
Well, it was cancer. I was diagnosed with stage II large B cell medistinal non hodgkins lymphoma.
I was 24 years old.
I had an apple sized tumor in between my lungs and I was officially, INCREDIBLY scared. But the way I saw it.. .I had 2 choices. #1. I could sit in a corner, curl up in the fetal position and make everyone cater to and worry about me. Or, #2 I could channel Lance Armstrong – embrace my new status as a cancer warrior, fight, win, thrive and become a cancer advocate. Well, here I am competing with all of you tomorrow, so I think it’s pretty obvious which road I chose.
When I was diagnosed, I felt like I needed to be armed with some pretty heavy stuff to fight this disease. Being the techno-savvy, young professional I am, I immediately turned to… google. It was FRIGHTENING to learn that I had a 63% chance of surviving my first year, and less than 50% of making it through 5 years; that the type of cancer I had was normally diagnosed in those in their mid 60s; and that it was known to be pretty aggressive. In addition, I learned that 564,830 Americans are expected to die of cancer this year. Do the math. That’s more than 1500 people a day.
1500 a day.
That is more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis COMBINED! Oh, yeah...I was going to be fine.
Cancer is the SECOND most common cause of death in the US, exceeded only by heart disease. In fact, the scariest statistic I learned was that cancer is THE leading disease killer among 20-39 year olds. Well… that was enough. I turned google off.
Unfortunately, my family—like yours, I’m sure—is all too familiar with cancer. My brothers and I returned home for Christmas in 2005 to find my parents calling a family meeting. My mom had found a lump in her breast around thanksgiving. She had gone through a biopsy and would be starting treatment for breast cancer the following week. They sat us down, very matter of factly, and explained: that this was what we were going to do; this is the impact it would have; and this was how we could all help. My mom is an incredible woman—definitely an inspiration to watch. She is a doctor, an anesthesiologist, and continued to work during her treatment. She would work Monday through Friday, and take off Friday afternoon to get treatment so she had the weekend to recover. She inspired us, her friends, her work colleagues, and the community. It is because of her that I signed up to do my first true endurance event – the avon 40 mile walk for breast cancer – and when I first found my calling as a cancer advocate.
What can I say? I am my mother’s daughter. When I was diagnosed, I immediately got ready for battle. I had blood drawn, a bone marrow biopsy – which, let’s not sugarcoat it, is the MOST painful thing in the world—and mapped out a plan. My parents flew down from Maine, we met with my oncologist and agreed that we weren’t messing around – be aggressive! B-E aggressive was our motto. I immediately started chemo – spending every 3rd Monday at the GW Cancer Center from 8:30-4:30, and back at work on Tuesday. I made friends, gave my nurses a hard time about taking steroids (as I was a vain, 24 year old and they were making me gain weight), and argued with my doctor about everything - being able to ride the metro, go to the gym, kiss my boyfriend… They became my support system. I could make the bald jokes, complain about wanting to go out to the bar with my friends for a beer instead of sitting at home watching American idol with a diet coke, and relate to them and their stories. Yes, this was a tough time in my life. As a young person, living alone in a city far away from home, I was already struggling to understand who I was and what I wanted. But please do not feel sorry for me. I believe I was the lucky one. I had a chance to learn life lessons that many my age simply will not encounter. I understand now just how important it is to not stress the small stuff, how crucial it is to fight for what you believe in, and how precious every day truly is.
I am the lucky one.
So… that’s my story. I got sick, I fought… and I won. I will celebrate my 2 year remission at the end of June.
I wanted to provide you with some background so you understood why I’m doing this. I need to prove to myself, not to mention to my family and friends, that I am “normal” again. I AM healthy, I can complete a triathlon and I will do well in that triathlon. I will not give up, and neither will you. You will hit that wall during the bike, where you legs and ass just burn so much that you think muscles might snap due to how tight they are. You may swallow a mouthful of water or get kicked during the swim. But you will not give up. You will not, because I am ahead of you, a beacon for you to follow. Or, I am behind you, inching up slowly but surely, and lord knows you don’t want to be passed by the cancer kid. Or (if you’re really lucky!) I’m right beside you.
You’ll know it’s me because -- as many of my teammates can attest to – I’ll be singing along, loudly, with whatever random song got stuck in my head that morning, trying to pace myself, and – seriously-- I’m too much fun to be around for you to not keep pace with me. So to quote Jimmy V, former college basketball coach and cancer advocate “don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
Cancer is a horrible, nasty disease that is simply affecting too many people. All of us have a friend, a relative, a neighbor or a coworker who has been affected in some way. I am incredibly relieved that I was able to battle through and beat this terrible disease. Although I recently received results that my latest CT scan was CLEAN, I live in constant fear that the disease will return and I will have to find the strength, again, to fight. One of the reasons I continue to do triathlons with Team in Training is not only to prove to friends and family that I am STILL healthy, but because it is hard to be fearful of this disease when I have my own personal army fighting to find a cure. I am going to fight you, cancer – with every stroke, pedal and strike. I am going to push harder every time just so you know how serious I am. Game on, Cancer! Bring it! I have an army behind me!
If I have learned one thing over the past few years, it is that life is far too short to be fearful of what the future “might” have in store for me. I am determined to live my life one day at a time, and to continue to give back to all the cancer advocacy groups who have provided me with support, knowledge, and scarves during my treatment. As my friend Dan, a fellow young cancer advocate who recently lost his courageous battle, used to say, “life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” Well, this is how I am reacting. I am fighting back, regaining my strength, and preparing for the next battle.
As you all know, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s primary goal is to find a cure for blood cancers. As a blood cancer survivor, I want to thank you—all of you—for all that you have done, are doing, and will do. Each of us in this room has raised funds to combat these horrific diseases. What else can I say… other than thank you. Thank you for being good and wonderful people; for taking time out of your already busy schedules to train, host fundraisers, and do all the terrific things that you do, in the name of finding a cure for blood cancers and helping all those whom cancer affects. I recently found out that one of the drugs included in my chemo cocktail, Rituximab, which is an important antibody that targets the CD20 antigen on B cells (B lymphocytes) was found through a Leukemia Lymphoma Society funded research project. YOU helped me survive, and I THANK YOU.
Tomorrow morning, when the butterflies hit your stomach, and your brain starts asking “what the hell were you thinking?!” … Remember that you have trained, you have persevered, and you WILL flourish. 5 months ago you signed up to challenge yourself and assist with an important cause. Tomorrow you get to reap your rewards and become HEROES. And don’t forget… the hard part is already over! no more 5am swim practices without lane lines, no more cold Saturday morning rides. You are here, and tomorrow you WILL be amazing. Regardless of whether you are in front of me or behind me, know that I am by your side. I am cheering you on.
2 quick shout outs if I have time:
1. My teammate, Dan Poneman, who as of Thursday morning had raised over $18,000 on behalf of Arnie’s Army for LLS. Thank you Dan.
2. To my fellow honored teammate Cris Otepka and his wife Noel. Congratulations mom and dad!! I can’t wait to meet Baby O in less than 6 months! I am so happy for you both