Thursday, 9 June 2011

Relay for Life

Last Saturday, the children and I packed up and headed off to the Relay for Life.  The Relay for Life is a fundraiser put on by the Canadian Cancer Society, where teammates, who are sponsored by friends, family, neighbours, and co-workers, take turns walking around a track for twelve hours to raise money for cancer research.  Zoe and I participated in it last year, and we had so much fun that I decided to bring the boys along with us.  The entertainment and various activities they have set up to keep people motivated and awake throughout the night, give the event a festival-like feel, but when you look into the faces of the cancer survivors performing their lap of victory, or witness the families who are currently battling this disease struggle to maintain their smiles during the various speeches and ceremonies, you become painfully aware of the seriousness of this event.  You are not just here to party, you are here to make a difference!  

Last year, one of the speakers compared how you feel during the relay to the various stages of dealing with cancer.We began the evening with optimism and energy.  We were excited that the efforts we had made over the past month to raise money for cancer research would in some small way push this effort forward.  We were hopeful that perhaps we could make a change in someones life, perhaps save a life, or even better yet help them to find a cure.  We were pumped to stay up the entire night and "fight back".  Cancer never sleeps so neither would we.

In the first stage of cancer, once you get over the initial shock, you have the strength and optimism to fight back.  Your friends and family rally behind you, and there is the sense that together we can beat the odds!

Avery was so excited because this was his first year to relay, and he caught the spirit quickly.  As we did our laps around the track, Avery would call out orders: "Skip, mom!  Now, let's run side-to-side!  Sprint!  Walk, and so on".  On lap 5, he screams out: "We are doing this ALL night long!  We are never giving up, mom".  At this point, being a seasoned veteran and knowing what is in store for us over the next twelve hours, my legs begin to tremble and I feel queasy.  "Baby, we have a long night ahead of us so we have to pace ourselves." 

But, for a seven year old there are only two options: all or nothing, and he was giving it his all:

I cannot help but think that our exchange could be very similar to one that would occur between a first-time cancer patient and a repeat patient.  The rookie, being naive to the patience and strength, both physically and mentally, required to fight the disease, starts their journey off with a running start: "Nothing is going to slow me down".  Whereas, the seasoned veteran, like myself at the relay, proceeds with caution.  The scars from past experience temper their enthusiasm and they are painfully aware of what lies ahead; however, they have hope that they can do it once again.

As the night went on, it was interesting to see how the group began to break down and individual people or groups of two would walk the track rather than the entire team together.  Unlike earlier, when everyone was amusing themselves with high energy games such as soccer and hula hooping, we began to sit more and build up our energy for the night with some snacks, still optimistic, though, that we can do this!

Then the sun went down, and it was time for the luminary ceremony.  This is a beautiful ceremony, where luminaries which have been purchased and placed around the track are lit in memory of those who have died from cancer or in support of someone who is currently battling the disease.  This is one of the most overwhelming moments of the night.  Your body is tired from the past four hours of walking, and you want nothing more than to crawl into your cozy bed, but you know that this is not a possibility.  A cancer patient stands up and shares their story, one that is filled with disappointment, faith, and hope.  Thankfully it is dark now because your tears flow freely.  Looking around, I saw the young girl who had been diagnosed with leukemia shortly before last year's relay, being embraced by her family, and my heart grew heavy.  I pulled my boys in closer to me, and clung to their little bodies.  Now feeling the weight of the seriousness of this event, the boys did not fight my display of affection and they melted into my arms.  No mother should have to experience what that young mother is going through, and at that moment, I have never been more grateful for the health of my children, but also more acutely aware of just how fragile it is.  After the speaker concluded, the audience was asked to look to their left, where the word H-O-P-E, marked out in luminaries, had been recently changed to read C-U-R-E.  This is what we are here for.  This is what we are fighting for.

Then, comes the walk of silence.  As we passed by each luminary, I could not help but wonder what was going through the boys' mind.  Was this too scary for them?  Did they feel empathy for all those families currently suffering? 

Elliot gestured for me to come closer.  Oh no!  I fear that this has been too much for my little worrier.

He pulls his mouth up to my ear, and whispers "Mom, I have to pee."

And there, in that one moment, Elliot, summed up the entire cancer experience for me.  In spite of the pain and the overwhelming emotions that accompany this disease, life goes on.   People diagnosed with cancer do not get ferried away to some magical land of comfort, where they can rest and fight their battles apart from the cares of the world. No, they still have jobs to do, schools to attend, people to care for, and bills to pay. They just now have to do all of these things with an even greater weight upon their backs.

At this point, in the evening, after our tears have been shed and our fears faced, the teams are strengthened and they resolve to stay up all night to fight this disease one step at a time.

Then, fatigue sets in, and teammates who have grown weary from the day begin to retire.  Suddenly, the atmosphere loses its festival feel and it becomes a night of mere endurance.

At this point, my boys beg me to take them to the van and settle them in for the night.

They could not keep up the fight, and they thankfully they do not have to.  As the three of us knelt in prayer, and I heard Avery's sweet little voice say "God please be with all of those people who have cancer", my heart grew heavy once again.  I just don't understand why all this suffering has to occur!   And then a familiar warmth encircled me, and these comforting words from the Book of Mormon came to me: "wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin" (2 Nephi 2:23).  It is only through pain that we can truly appreciate what joy means.  We are here on this earth to experience all of these emotions, and I am just thankful that we do not have to experience them alone.

So, as I laid there snuggled between my two boys, drifting in and out of a light sleep, knowing that my young daughter was still enduring and walking the track, I was overcome with love!  Love for my family, love for my Father in Heaven, love for my Savior, love for my fellow brother and sisters who are struggling with all manners of diseases and afflictions, and love for this experience we call humanity!

Finally, when the sun began to creep out welcoming a new day, our heart were filled with hope and jubilation!  We did it!  We were worn out, exhausted, cold and dirty, but we did it!  And although this fight is not over for the thousands of people who are currently fighting cancer, we pray that our efforts in some small way have provided them with comfort, support and temporary relief as we walked alongside them on their own Relay for Life!

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