Over the weekend my friend Allison and I headed to UGA’s campus in Athens, GA to participate in The American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with RFL, here is the description from their website:
“Relay For Life is a life-changing event that gives everyone in communities across the globe a chance to celebrate the lives of people who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost, and fight back against the disease.
At Relay, teams of people camp out at a local high school, park, or fairground and take turns walking or running around a track or path. Because cancer never sleeps, Relays are overnight events up to 24 hours in length. Relayers do not have to walk all night, but each team is asked to have a representative on the track at all times during the event.”
The RFL that we did was only 12 hours (7pm to 7am). Allison and I arrived together around 5pm so we could set up “camp” and grab a bite to eat before the opening ceremonies. After dropping off our blankets, chairs and cooler in our spot we ate some dinner. Right as we were finishing up Allison’s husband, Jamie, arrived with their cutie, Sloane. Shortly after they arrived the opening ceremonies began.
The ceremonies started with the organizers of the event talking about what was going to play-out throughout the night. Then came the stories. The stories of survivors and the stories of people who have lost loved ones to cancer. Heart-wrenching does not even begin to describe these stories. It is amazing what people are faced with and how strong they can stay despite it. I definitely lost it during one of the stories.
Once the stories were over it was time for the survivors to do a “survivor lap” around the track.
Then there was a lap for the survivors and their “caregivers”.
Yes, that is Allison, Sloane and Jamie (and this picture makes my eyes well up). Allison has been fighting cancer for a little over the past year. At the end of this post is her story, because nobody can tell it better than she can. I have to say though, Allison has handled this hand she was dealt with courage, grace, strength and smile on her face. And she did it all with a brand new baby. I know that I would not have been able to go through this the way she did. Allison is an absolute inspiration and I am so incredibly proud of her. I am so happy that I was able to participate in this event with her and in her honor. Al, you are amazing. Love you, lady!
After the survivor and caregiver walk the relay “officially” opened and our team broke up to walk along the track. Allison and I sat and chatted for the first little bit since we knew we would have a long stretch to walk once our team that was there left.
The first part of our team (Tessa, Kate and Kim) walked from about 7pm until 9:30pm and then the second round of teammates (Sarah and Annie) walked from about 9:30pm until 1:30am. Allison and I walked sporadically during that time and then were on our own from 2am until 5am. We completed a little over 7 miles throughout the night (yes, I had my Garmin… I was curious) and talked about pretty much everything under the sun. At one point Allison said, “well, is there anything we haven’t talked about?”. The answer to that was no, btw. We had two more teammates come a 5am (Phil and Cory) until the end. I was too tired to remember to snap a picture of them.
One of my favorite moments of the race was the luminary walk. They turned off all the lights and music for about 5 minutes with the only light being the glowing luminaries lining the track.
All of the luminaries had either “in honor of” or “in memory of” with a name of the person who fought cancer. It was a beautiful (& sad) sight to see.
Relay for Life was a wonderful (& emotional) event to be a part of. I’m so happy I did it. If you every have the opportunity to take part in it, I highly recommend it!
This story was written for the event. They asked survivors to write their stories and Allison agreed to let me share it on the blog.
“Everyone’s story is important but if you don’t have the time to read any further than this sentence, remember to ALWAYS pay attention to your body and stick with your instincts because they are usually right!
My name is Allison and I’m a 30 year old, wife and mother of my newly turned 1 year old daughter. I first figured out something was unusual in September 2010 when I was washing my face in the shower and noticed that it was really tender on my right cheek. I was 3 months pregnant at the time so didn’t really think much of it since there were quite a lot of other new changes going on with my body. Shortly after my daughter was born in March 2011 and when the craziness of having a newborn subsided a bit, I decided to start seeing some doctors about the ‘tenderness’ on my face. It had started to bother me more often now but primarily when I was laying on that side of my face at night to sleep. We were living in Chapel Hill, NC at the time so I went to a school of dentistry where the student seemed concerned about my complaint but his attending assured me that it was nothing. Unconvinced, I then saw a series of other doctors including an oral surgeon, ENT (ear, nose and throat) plastic surgeon and ENT specialist and underwent a CT scan, MRI and a needle biopsy. The images simply concluded on an abnormal facial mass and the biopsy produced inconclusive results.
I had a repeat biopsy performed (hurt worse than childbirth by the way) and my doctor called on August 30, 2011 to give me the results. I was out of town for work so my doctor called my emergency contact, my husband, who then proceeded to track me down and through tears tell me it was malignant. Since we were new to Atlanta and Ohio was where our families were, my local doctor recommended an ENT surgeon, his mentor, at the Cleveland Clinic for semi-immediate removal of my adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC, or in other words, cancerous tumor) adjacent to my salivary gland. I say semi-immediate because ACC is a very slow moving cancer. It really didn’t grow much in size over the year I knew it was there and probably would’ve continued at that pace if I ignored it. However, it is still a high grade cancer so it definitely needed to be removed.
After a month of keeping busy and distracted with my then, 6 month old, she, 70 packages of milk on dry ice for her (unnecessary detail I realize but a big challenge in my cancer-struggle), my husband and I flew into Cleveland for my surgery on September 30, 2011. I was in surgery for quite a bit longer than expected (6 hrs) as my tumor was larger, further away from the point of incision than images made it out to be and the cancer cells were found in part of my parotid gland. The initially planned modified facelift procedure was more complicated but still thought to be successful. I kept telling myself that many people actually opt for facelifts so I should be thankful that it wasn’t anything or anywhere else. I was discharged after staying over just one night and was called a few days later with the surgical biopsy results that recommended follow-up radiation therapy. I had negative margins (which is good!) at the surgical site but they found a handful of cancer cells in my lab work.
After 6 weeks of recovery, I began radiation treatment at the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory in November 2011. Treatment became part of my every day for 6.5 weeks. The cons of treatment included losing my sense of taste and quite a bit of weight, dry mouth, painful oral ulcers, not being able to fly home for the holidays, being forced to stop nursing my daughter…and no drinking alcohol too for that matter. Believe it or not, the pros that far made up for the cons included ending treatment the week of Christmas (and having my family fly in for the holidays instead), meeting some wonderful survivors in my monthly support group for ENT patients, being the recipient of prayers, emails, cards and calls that are too many to count, being associated with and treated by some of the best medical professionals in the country, but most importantly, uncovering an inner strength that I’d never known and will probably never be able to explain.
I had my first post treatment MRI in February and proud to report clean results. I am due for another one next month and then my doctor promised to leave me alone for the rest of the year to focus on a baby #2!”
Allison, I can’t say enough how strong and amazing you are. Truly and inspiration.