S-c-o-t-t. I remember the fresh fumes tickling my nose as I leaned closer to the kitchen table with a black Sharpie, inscribing my old call-partner's name on a white ribbed ribbon. J-a-n-i-c-e (on yellow). T-o-m (also yellow). These two names could be flying on green, but the yellow spool was closer. K-a-t-e (on white). I think of her husband, widowed long ago and doing a splendid job raising their children alone.
Walking alongside my 17-year-old son, Will, and watching all the names fluttering above us, I wonder, “What's he thinking?” It was primarily for Will that I'd agreed to do this event. I was hoping his service as co-captain for a “cancer walk” could teach him about survivorship. And with time running short before he leaves for college, I confess to grabbing shamelessly at the increasingly rare opportunities to be close to him. The hitch was the fundraising. Ugh. My dread of asking anyone for any money under any circumstances prompted an idea: I could ask people—politely, no pressure!—if they'd like to buy yellow or green ribbons “in honor of” or white ribbons “in memory of” their loved ones, with the promise I'd carry the flag of names throughout the course.
Fundraising has never been my forte. When I was in practice, occasional patients with cancer-cluttered calendars would tell me about their survivors' events. I appreciated the noble effort of raising money for the greater good but often wondered if these patients were stuck in their illness, instead of moving on. E-i-l-e-e-n (on green). E-l-l-e-n (on white). As for their ability to measurably advance cures, I dismissed the small-town fundraising as meaningless drops in the ocean. And I missed the point.
So what's the attraction? For me, it begins with colorful balloons that mark the entrance into a cancer-world unlike any other. At the chemo clinic, having cancer is normal, but everyone is focused on my disease. Support group is another place where having cancer is normal, but, despite the sprinkled cookies and hearty scoops of laughter, the core activity is talking about illness. A-n-d-y (on green). In contrast, at the Lymphomathon I never sit, and nobody does anything to me or for me. In exchange for my stack of donation checks, I get a Lance-yellow t-shirt and a chance to take a stand with a step.
Marcia's t-shirt trumpets her coming-out: “Me. I have cancer.” In a crowd where newbie Yellows blend in with veteran survivors, someone asks Marcia, “What type?” as casually as if asking her zodiac sign. Her answer prompts no pity or pulling away. With unwavering cadence, “Me” becomes “Me, too,” and Marcia's loneliness and helplessness dissolve in the solidarity of a sea of yellow pressing forward and onward.
H-a-r-r-y (on yellow). Middle-aged Joe is walking with advanced myeloma, miles from the comfort of his well-worn easy chair. Joe's lost so much and is likely to lose everything before winter, if not by fall. Carried by the crowd's momentum, he sends a message to the little girl holding tight his left hand: “Your grandpa is not lying down! We're sticking together.” H-e-r-b-e-r-t (on white). A life remembered lives on.
Mike leads his children as they pedal on their trikes near the rear of the pack. Zigzagging like the Music Man, Mike muscles out room between the tension and tears for silliness and joy. He leaves his wife L-i-n-d-a (on yellow) free to savor the pure physicality of it all, knowing she doesn't want to talk or cry or even think about cancer, except to proclaim the reclaiming of what surgery and chemotherapy had taken away. Grandma is not a talker or crier, either. From her vantage as the procession's caboose, she quietly absorbs the swell of fortitude and hopefulness in the wake of walkers who truly understand what her children's—and her—challenges are all about.
My taller-than-me son is chatting with his buddies when he notices a cluster of people wearing photographs pinned to their backs, identical close-ups of a smiling young man. “Always in our hearts,” reads the caption. Will veers my way and glances down briefly at my eyes, to see if I've seen. His slowed pace signals his revelation regarding the implications of a fact he's known all his life: Cancer kills.” W-e-n-d-y (in green). Silence seems to ask, “Why did they come here, if he's gone?” Maybe they came to walk for him, or for themselves. Maybe they are walking for the children, including mine. I put my hand lightly on the small of Will's back, “His battle is over, but the battle is not. They still have the fight in them.” Blinking thrice, he takes our flag of names from me and rejoins his friends.
Your patients go to survivors' events for escape, or validation, or support, or inspiration. What looks like a leisurely 5K stroll may be your patient's Tour de France. D-e-b-r-a S-u-e- (on yellow). A fundraiser may be your patient's way of fulfilling a sense of obligation to yesterday or to tomorrow, repaying a debt to a life lost or for a life gained. Like other patients lured by a local “thon,” I've worked hard to raise as much money as possible. Who knows? The dollars donated in support of Wendy's Eagles may help fund linchpin studies leading to a cure. But for me, the event is just as much about walking with my son, standing up to cancer, and remembering with ribbons.