Thursday, October 22, 2015

Humanizing Cancer

Once upon a time I had a chance to speak to the Livestrong leaders about why I appreciate the work of the organization and the people who do it, so it's always with endearing and enduring excitement that I like the weekends that are with the team, with my family. Perhaps there are those who would not understand how cancer can cause family but the birth process is a complicated mess in its own way and I've long called the cancer part of my existence, life part II. So both of my families, those who came from birth and those who came from cancer are because of a biological connection in their own way. Maybe it's an odd thing to say but while I certainly would never sign up for cancer, this second part of life, made me aware of my mortality more poignantly and gave me a greater appreciation for life. At the first part of life, just that being born, I was far too young and immature to appreciate the gift... With both there were fears and tears and a reaching out for holding hands and each year, I'm glad to still be holding on.

The weekend began as it had last year with me, the guy who once couldn't drive for the better part of
3 years, picking up some friends who are joys in life and having good old Texas BBQ since they were mostly from out of state because that's obviously the best nutrition for long bike rides. Time flies when you're having fun so lunch hadn't been done too long before it was time for the official "Ride for the Roses" dinner. There'd be old friends to catch up on, new friends to meet, new survivors. The survivors are always the easiest to talk to for me because you find encouragement in that not only are they standing; they're working to help others stand long. There are those moments where you see someone knowing that some are still grieving the losses that have come from cancer since the last time. A couple of them had lost spouses and you hug them a little higher commending them for having kept their word of the 'till death to us part' and encouraging the rest of their journey. Seeing them smile as they told stories of the spouse cancer had robbed much too early makes you know that love is stronger than death in its own way. The hardest ones are those who are their in honor of their children passing... I can't imagine the difficulty of this one not even try because we're supposed to be buried by our children not the other way around.

The formal part of the dinner where we tell jokes about the journey and shed tears along the way, the mix of pathos and ethos echoing the up and down hills we're getting ready for. There was the survivor who talked about his childhood cancer and how out of everyone on his childhood hospital wing, he was still the only one standing. There was the survivor who talked about how they went up Mt. Kilimanjaro after cancer, taking on a peak after a tough valley of life. There was the person who graduated nursing school on the same day they finished chemo treatment, if that's not balancing health care I don't know what is.

It's been a year of transition with Livestrong as the new CEO, Chandini Portteus, taking the stage about some of the things that have shifted, changed but while she gave many new details she focused on what is, was and will be always an important part of the Livestrong mission, they had helped more cancer patients this year. The upcoming Chairman of the Board also shared her experience with cancer in her speech she gave what to me was the line of the night, "just because cancer treatment is terrifying doesn't mean it has to be dehumanizing."

This is why I've always appreciated Livestrong because they help in the here and now. They helped me deal with the treatment part and connected me to the right doctors. While it would take time and it's not done yet for it all to absorb correctly, they would help line me up with a better approach to relationships from parenting to significant others. We have to throw out numbers to get a concept like that there's over 32 million people dealing with cancer right now, in my particular case the diagnosis is 3 in a million. But those numbers are abstract without a human face and on every Livestrong story, they connect the diseases to individuals, humanizing why we have to fight the disease. We are the faces of those who got to be better parents or were incapable of childbearing because of treatment. My friend Cisco is the one who had finished treatments years back but then realized he could be part of making the cancer journey easier. My friend Scott realized it immediately and has been a serious fundraiser every year because he'd beat cancer; whether that or the fact that he kept doing it after his wife passed away from it is more impressive. My friend Steve who is still doing the journey with cancer. These are not just statistics or numbers; they're people who I have hugged and heckled, had meals with, shared memories with. Cancer and Livestrong made each of us keenly aware of our mortality, helped us balance accepting it and fighting it simultaneously.

The ride itself is always a tough party (not a typo)... I've done 5 of these and each time signed up for the century, the 100 miler, simply believing that if you sing up for the long haul then maybe I'll end up with a  longer one on my own. I knew when I started that once I got across that finish line I would have biked 500 miles with and for Livestrong. There'd be moments where I'd ride next to people, a man who had just turned 30 doing it in honor of his father who he'd lost at age 20. I'd have a few miles with another runner pretending to be a cyclist where we weren't quite sure how to turn all the gears on all the hills but hey sometimes trying new things is what messes with the system enough to get new health going in the middle of challenges. Some were riding to support their friends and family. There were of course those who were just there for the ride and that's called life. While this is theoretically just a ride not a race, I might have only stopped once and biked as hard as I could cause the weather was perfect. I've never been good at taking it easy and maybe I'll learn that lesson someday but at least for now, I chose to believe that pursuing the right pace with passion is the better path.

When it was all said and done, there was a sign at the end that said "Cancer survivors move right." All that was supposed to imply was of course left vs right and I think it's been at every Livestrong event I've ever done and I've never really caught it. But on this 5th 100 miler, I went back and took a picture of it so that the guy with the damaged memory from a cancerous brain tumor, could remember that's why I love livestrong because from day one, they pointed me in the "right" direction. Somethings I ignored initially, others I'm still learning but they were a consistent force in sending me to the right places and people.

Still, I came to a quick stop at the end cause there was some good music playing and what do you do but dance... the bike wasn't the best dance partner I've ever had but luckily a lady who gave me hope the moment I met her, Linda Santos came out and danced with me. I got my survivor's rose and then went looking for friends who had done different and shorter distances because their brains weren't as damaged. We traded some more stories, some more hugs and were grateful for the weekend.

Still, when I came home, I didn't keep my rose. I never once have. I gave it to a little girl who I hope always appreciates flowers and life. Like me, like them, like all of us, how well we're planted, tendered will be a factor in how well we grow. Like all of that, nothing is 100% predictable but if we appreciate it more that's how we humanize cancer patients and how we love and Livestrong.

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