It’s that time again. Tomorrow I will don my purple shirt and take a victory lap. That is how I have come to view the survivor lap at Relay for Life. It is an acknowledgment of a hard-fought battle with a ruthless foe. I am amazed every year at the number of new faces that join our ranks. Looking out across the crowd there are young and old, male and female, rich and poor, and every color. I see many of the same faces each year, but there are others who are noticeably absent.
We survivors come in all stages of disease. Some are still in the midst of the battle claiming every day…every breath…as a victory. They walk with their heads covered with hats, or scarves. Some are brave enough to step into the circle shiny bald. They vacillate from teary eyes to the eye of the tiger, set, and determined to continue to do battle. Some cannot walk their lap; they are too weak so they ride in a golf cart or wheel chair. A few watch from the sidelines wishing that they could be out there. They know that this will be their last Relay and that next year they will be a remembrance candle. It is the reality of the disease, and it builds courage like you have never seen.
There are others, who have been survivors for varying numbers of years. We all know the statistics of our particular type of cancer and we hold our breath at every doctor’s appointment. We breathe a sigh of relief when we walk for our 5th year. Five years is a milestone, but honestly every year past five feels like another victory to me. It is inspiring to see those walking near you that are far ahead in the ongoing journey of survivorhood. As we gather we talk and share war stories. To hear of someone who is a 25 year survivor infuses you with hope that one day that will be you. And so all manner of survivors, join those still in active treatment for one time around the track.
I have tried to describe the bond that one lap creates for years, without much success. The unity happens without words. The purple shirt says all that needs to be said. We have been broken. We are both scarred and scared. Our lives altered, our priorities changed. There are usually tears as we walk past friends and family who clap and cheer as if we were superstars. The acknowledgement of the battered pathway we have walked is hard to receive, but is healing when you do. Much of Cancerland is endured in private. It is a solitary disease. Even your caretakers, who are fighting their own battle to hold life together, do not fully understand the secret thoughts and fears that eat up your sleep. So when you step out there in front of a crowd of people, the fact that they stand by and cheer somehow makes you feel less lost. Less alone.
These solitary feelings are not as intense the further out you get from treatment, but they never go away completely. If anything, they become bittersweet as the years roll on by. The tenderness that rises up in your heart, the warmth that spreads as you see people’s compassion flow towards you is immeasurable. There is joy for the moment, because as survivors we all know that living in the moment is best. One of the main things Cancerland teaches you is that you do not know what next year holds…so today’s victory lap is to be savored. Here’s to all my fellow survivors…may we all have many years to come…and many victory laps to celebrate!