Lanita Diagnosed at age 32
It was a bright, warm, sunny Texas day. With the sky so big, a sky that only Texas could deliver.
The crowd was alive with joy, happiness, dedication, fear, pride, expectation, perseverance and sisterhood. It was pink as far as the eye could see, as if a giant paintbrush of Pepto Bismal had swathed the crowd.
I was no newbie to this scene. I had countless 5Ks, 10Ks and even a marathon under my belt. This wasn't my first Race for the Cure and certainly not as a survivor. I had been diagnosed 14 months earlier with Paget's Disease and had subsequently had had a double mastectomy with reconstruction in the preceding months. I had survived my first year with pride, a sense of accomplishment, and some fear because the grip of my cancer had yet to let go.
I knew no one in the crowd. I was visiting my parents for the weekend and my trip had happily coincided with the 1997 Plano Race for the Cure. The crowd wasn't large, but the other breast cancer survivors were loud and proud. As I stood next to other survivors, sharing a moment of sisterhood as we stood waiting for our group survival pictures to be taken, I looked around the crowd and noticed younger women, older women, women who were heavy set and those who were thin, with thick hair and some with no hair at all. I shared a sense of pride that on this day, we all stood together as survivors.
But as I enjoyed the warmth of the day and the sense of sorority, one woman stood out in the crowd.
She was a tall, distinguished, older African American woman. Her hair cropped close to her head. She wore a baseball hat. A hat covered in embroidered pink ribbons...one for every year she had survived breast cancer. I stood for many moments wondering about her story, counting the ribbons on her hat. 20. She had 20 ribbons artfully placed over the brim of her hat, spilling over to the crown, both in front and back.
My math challenged brain tried to calculate her age and how old she had been when she heard the diagnosis that would change her life. She stood before me as a beacon of all I wanted to become. I wanted to be her...a 20 year survivor, but with the memories of my diagnosis, surgeries, and treatments still too fresh in my head, it was hard to ever imagine I could be a 20 year survivor. I felt so inferior standing next to her with my one lone ribbon taking up space at the edge of my own baseball hat.
Normally a shy person, I gathered my courage and quietly congratulated her on her survivorship. She smiled a mega watt smile in return and returned my congratulations. I smiled wistfully hoping to duplicate her enormous accomplishment someday.
That day was 17 years ago. I am now an 19 year breast cancer survivor, no longer worrying if my cancer will return. No longer allowing the cancer to define me. So many years have gone by that my breast cancer only represents a small slice of the pie that is my life. Other things over the years have taken center stage to my cancer. Adoption, raising special needs children, teaching my teenage daughter to drive a car, school, work, the death of my first husband, and finding love again. Year after year, the breast cancer slice got smaller and less significant.
My scars are only that...scars. Scars I rarely see anymore. As I look in the mirror everyday, my reconstructed breasts are just breasts. The memory of my real ones so far in the past, I really don't remember them any longer.
I no longer run 5Ks, 10Ks or marathons. My running shoes have been tossed, along with the countless race bibs I proudly wore at races across the country. I no longer participate in my local Race for the Cure, but the memory of that long ago sunny day in Texas often pushes to the forefront of my mind and I am reminded of that 20 year survivor I met that day. If my mathematically challenged brain is correct, she is now a 37 year cancer survivor. I wonder if she still proudly wears her hat with 37 ribbons crammed on her baseball hat.
Are you a survivor, spouse, friend, or caretaker with a story to tell? We'd love to hear from you.