Emory Report
June 12, 2006
Volume 58, Number 32


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June 12 , 2006
Minimizing cancer

Julia leon is lead application development analyst for academic and administrative information technology.

This year’s Relay for Life started for me with setting up my tent and lawn chair on our team’s designated 15x15 plot of land next to about 30 other tents on Emory’s soccer and track field at the P.E. Center. It was Friday, April 28, just after work. At 7 p.m., we would begin walking around the track, and the walking would continue until 7 the next morning.

My team, Marathon Madness, would be honored in the closing ceremonies for having the most team spirit, and I must say that we deserved it, due to the passionate drive of our team leader, Samantha Smith, and her friend and team member, Susie Lackey, who each walked a marathon during the night. That’s 105 laps around the track. They walked all night long together (and not at a stroll, but at a fast clip). Our other team members were Jan Saul, Verena D’Mellow, Charmayne Johnson, Carol Nicols, Louis Leon and Paula Martin.

Then I attended the Survivor’s Reception where I met Andy and Gerry. Andy helped organize this event and also works at the University; 20 years ago Gerry was a varsity athlete on the very track we were about to walk. He even saw the 1-mile record broken here. Now Gerry is undergoing cancer treatment, which he described as “plenty of pain” even while sharing his warm smile. At the reception we also received some gifts; one was a survivorship notebook given by the Lance Armstrong Foundation entitled “Live Strong.”

Relay for Life is an annual event sponsored by the American Cancer Society to raise money for cancer research. One of the most beautiful parts is the Luminary Ceremony before the relay begins. Our opening ceremonies speaker Minah Yacher, a four-year survivor, reminded us that one in three women, along with half of all men, will hear at some point in their lives that they have cancer. “It shouldn’t be that way,” she said.

Describing the cancer treatments she underwent during her senior year in college, Yacher said it became easier when she accepted her situation. What was hard to accept was the change in her relationship to her student community brought about by her overt symptoms: She looked different. She needed special assistance. She was resentful of what she was going through. But accepting her condition made it easier to accept the community’s support.

After she finished speaking, the stadium lights were turned out and she lit a candle. All the survivors were called forward to light their candles from hers. A small group, we looked out on a sea of people, mostly Emory students, and I felt transfused with their support. Then all the caretakers were invited up, so I lit my husband’s candle. As I later learned from the “Live Strong” notebook, caretakers are also cancer survivors and survivorship begins the day of the diagnosis.

Soon the flame spread to everyone else’s candles, and we began a silent walk around the track, our luminary candles lighting the way. On one of the white bags housing a candle were the words, “In Honor of Cicely,” who is one of my friends and who is also a cancer survivor.

Up to this point, I had experienced the relay as something like a festival. There were games, music, information tables; many teams sold such goodies as donuts, cookies and boiled peanuts. One tent advertised henna tattoos. For a donation, you could even try climbing the rock wall in the Emory gym. (Of course, all proceeds were to be given to the American Cancer Society and added to the total raised by the teams.) Some people were dressed in costumes. The students, seemingly full of energy, were jogging, practicing soccer and dancing.

Then, around 10:30 p.m., the population started to thin. Three of our team members (including my husband Louis) went home. Those of us left took on the mission of having one team member always on the track until the closing ceremonies, and the night stretched long in front of us. Thankfully, the arrival of a new team member provided reinforcements; there were now four of us to make the night. 11 p.m. came and went, then midnight, then every hour on the hour, and nothing changed until the sun rose at about 6 a.m. Throughout the night, there always seemed to be about 20 people walking the track. A group of tireless young men practiced soccer on the infield. (Some things did change: I developed a blister on my right heel; my thigh muscles hurt from trying to keep up with Susie and Samantha, and from about 2 a.m. on I became chilled, not to be comfortably warm again until long after relay was over.)

At some point in this phase of the walk Susie and I were discussing how this sort of extreme exercise can damage the body. When we separated a little later, she was standing above me on the stadium stairs and pointing at me. “I’m doing this for you,” she pronounced. Well, I didn’t want her to hurt herself, so I blurted out, “You don’t have to do it for me.”

My personal goal was to walk from 2–4 a.m., which I considered to be the darkest part of the night. When 4 o’clock came, I thought long and hard about taking a nap in my tent. Oddly enough I wasn’t very sleepy, but the warmth of the sleeping bag was very tempting. I worried that I might not be able to rouse myself to see my team members finish their marathon but finally succumbed to the idea of a one-hour nap.

Fifty minutes later I awoke, without the aid of my alarm clock, and met up with Susie, Samantha and Jan on the track. Apparently the darkest part of the night came as I slumbered because Susie and Samantha were now very tired, hurting ladies. Laps 80–89, they reported, were interminably long. One of them said her right foot felt like someone was pounding a nail in it. Discussion centered around what we’d treat ourselves to after the relay: a bath, breakfast, a massage.

At 5:30 Susie and Samantha reported that they had only 10 laps remaining! I joined them for these last laps. The sun rose. Over the speakers it was announced that the Marathon Madness ladies were completing their last lap. A group of students converged at the finish line to cheer us through. After tears and hugs and photo-taking, we were honored again at the closing ceremonies with a “Spirit of Relay” award. Samantha received an award for the individual who raised the most money, and our entire event raised more than $39,000! As we were packing up, Susie handed the Spirit of Relay plaque on to me. “You’re the spirit of our team,” she said. Reluctantly, I accepted, though I promised to pass it on Stanley Cup-style to the other team members.

To be honest, I don’t feel like a cancer survivor. I feel more like a cancer imposter. Cancer is part of my history, not part of my future. Most people with thyroid cancer are cured with a relatively short and limited treatment; I had two surgeries and one radiation treatment in the course of about three months. A couple of months later I was riding my bike to work again. That’s the short and sweet of it. I had my trials and tribulations, too, so I don’t want to make too light of it, but I got off light compared with some people I know who have gone through chemotherapy.

At first, I wondered how I could represent cancer to people when I no longer have the disease and was never seriously challenged by its treatment. Then I thought about what our speaker said, about cancer being minimized in our lifetime, and I realized that my story represents the future of cancer. In our lifetime, more people will experience cancer like I experienced it.