When cancer hits home.

By Jessica HaleyMay 7, 2010

This story happened one week ago.

We had a team at Bamboozle in New Jersey. On the road, Chad was nearing the end of the Pick Up The Phone Tour. At the Bungalow, our interns were packing and saying goodbyes as their four-month internship came to a close. As for me, I had the weekend off – no TWLOHA events or festivals, just another average weekend in Central Florida (or so I thought.)

Saturday night my husband and I drove to Melbourne High School, the same school we graduated from almost ten years ago, for the 2010 Relay For Life event. The American Cancer Society Relay For Life is an annual event that takes place in parks and schools across the globe. It’s a memorial to remember loved ones lost to cancer, a time to celebrate with those who have survived, and a chance to fight back against this awful disease. As we approached the school we saw hundreds of cars lining the baseball field, filling the parking lots, and overflowing to areas across the street. I was blown away. I hadn’t even walked up and I was already in awe.

Music was blaring. Kids were running, playing, laughing. Booths were on both sides of the walking track selling merchandise, goodies, and food to raise additional funds for the cause. Tents and sleeping bags were set up for the night ahead. There was a rainbow of t-shirts in different colors, each t-shirt representing one of the thirty-nine teams participating that evening. Teams were made up of school faculty members, co-workers from local businesses, families, and groups of friends who in some way or another had been affected by cancer. The second we walked up, we were greeted by our friend Sean. Sean was a groomsman in our wedding and has been one of our closest friends for years. My husband and I were participating for him and for his family. His father, after a long battle with an extremely rare cancer, passed away on August 13, 2008.

The entire Relay for Life was dedicated to Sean’s father, Dr. Thomas McIntyre. He had been a prominent member of the community and was well known in the education system – he had spent years as a teacher, dean, principal and superintendent in the county. To me, he was just my friend’s dad. To me, he was a father of three boys and a husband, now missing from this family I love.

The word “SURVIVOR” printed across the back of purple t-shirts reminded everyone that the person wearing the shirt had lived through their battles with the disease. They stood out in the crowd. Without saying a word, they could relate to one another. Smiles were passed back and forth from one survivor to another, a small gesture with a lot of impact. They didn’t need to describe chemo to each another or the side effects that resulted. They had known it, felt it, it had consumed their souls, and they came out on the other side.

I thought of my friend Stacy. Her mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 Non Small Cell Non Smokers Lung Cancer in December 2004. Up until a few weeks ago, her mom would’ve proudly worn a “SURVIVOR” shirt too. But after five years in remission she was re-introduced to her worst enemy. Five years cancer-free and suddenly life changes. Again. It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t make sense. I wished in that moment that Stacy and her mom were there too, just so they could be loved, and so they could be reminded they were not alone. So their hope could be renewed.

There was a sense of unity and strength on the field that night. As the sun began to go down I noticed volunteers lighting tea lights in paper bags, each bag with the name of a friend or loved one who passed away from cancer or a message celebrating someone’s recovery. Each bag represented a story, a life. In my mind, there were too many bags, too much pain and too much struggle. It was difficult to look at. Even those celebrating in their recovery had walked through a time I could not begin to relate to. At sunset, the Luminaria Ceremony took place honoring Dr. McIntyre and all of the others affected by cancer in our community. The ceremony ended in silence, walking around the track lined with glowing luminaries.

It was a moment to reflect. A moment to remember. A moment that doesn’t happen frequently on a high school baseball field. As the lap ended, I turned to my husband and told him how crazy it was that we could’ve been walking for me; about a month and a half ago, I was tested for both bladder and kidney cancer. For some reason, I got the good news. My doctor looked me in the eyes and said I would be fine. “You do not have cancer.” I remember walking into the doctor’s office that day thinking my life could change drastically, but for some reason I was spared the diagnosis. So the question flips, why not me? Why am I so lucky? That night I was surrounded by hundreds of people whose lives had changed with a doctor visit. They had not received the good news I did. They received the bad news. The pain, the unending doctor appointments, procedures, prescriptions, treatment options, all of it. I had walked that path for a few months and it scared the hell out of me. Some have dealt with this for years. Some still do every day. And for some, like Sean’s dad, the cancer was just too strong.

That night I was invited into a community of people filled with hope, determination, and love. It was community at its finest; raw and honest. It was not sugarcoated. It was okay to be sad. It was okay to be happy. You didn’t have to act a certain way. The way you were was accepted. I hope that in whatever you are dealing with you are able to find a place where you feel safe being who you are. Whatever baggage you may carry or struggles you deal with, I hope that you can find a community like this one. Do not be ashamed. It’s okay to be scared, just do not live life alone. Talk to the people in your life you trust, or can learn to trust. Let them love you.

You are NOT replaceable.

With Love,
Jessica 🙂

UPDATE: As of yesterday, my friend Stacy’s mom received the news that she is cancer free again! We are all so excited and hopeful for the future. Day two and counting…

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