Cancer. It is humanity's most ruthless, devastating and unforgiving enemy. It steals lives, derails dreams and leaves countless people in sorrow. It attacks unexpectedly and unannounced, yet can be passed down through generations. And it is a faceless villain, one that can't be faulted, that can't be punished, that can't simply be convinced to stop.
I wish this was as hyperbolic as it sounds, but it just isn't. Those of you whose lives have been affected by cancer to yourself, a loved one or a friend surely understand. And I'm guessing that's almost all of you.
My story is this: Seven years ago my uncle lost a long fight with an inexplicable form of cancer; two and a half years ago, his father - my papa - succumbed to what had been a manageable cancer when an accident weakened his condition; a little more than a year ago, my friend Heather lost a five-year battle with a rare adrenal cancer at 25. And these are just the people who were closest to me.
Human beings don't like to feel powerless. We like to believe that if there is something wrong with the world, we can change it. In the case of cancer, the only thing we can do is write checks to people researching it in hopes they might discover a way to stop it.
So what I really want to write about is fighting back.
I didn't really realize that my journey of fighting back against cancer had begun the day I found out my uncle wasn't going to survive it. I was at college, preparing with my Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers for our big philanthropy event, Rock-A-Thon. Every other year, Rock-A-Thon becomes the focus of our chapter; one brother sits in a rocking chair for 48 hours while the others collect donations around town and on campus for the American Cancer Society. I canned for the first day, then left for my uncle's funeral.
I wish I could say this symbolic coincidence empowered me to become a fierce advocate for cancer research, but it didn't. Two years later at the next Rock-A-Thon, I gave my time and energy to help us raise $50,000, and I did so proudly, but I knew I hadn't yet gone above and beyond.
Almost three years later and well removed from college, I could no longer lean on Rock-A-Thon as my vehicle for fighting back, and I knew I wasn't doing enough. That's when I took notice of what my friends Heather and Logan were doing through ACS' Relay for Life.
I had previously ignored Relay for Life in high school and college, but when I saw Heather's passion for Relay, and her unbelievable strength of spirit to organize a fundraising effort for the very thing she was personally battling, I decided to give it a try. I joined her team, Chemosaurus Rex, and even wrote a song to voice my hatred for cancer as a way to raise funds.
Raising money on my own, I finally felt I had stepped up and spoken out as someone willing to fight cancer. I had hidden behind AEPi's united front during Rock-A-Thon, raising money because it was expected of me and it was important work. I had yet to make my fight personal, believing there was little I could do on my own.
But there was a little I could do. I didn't need to write the check that would lead to a cure for cancer, but I needed to show the survivors, caregivers and other fighters in my life and my community that I would support them, that I was not going to be silent and do nothing.
When I finally did, I never could've anticipated the support I would find in Relay. These were others whose lives were (in most cases) more grievously affected by cancer that my own. Even though I didn't need their support in an active sense, being around hundreds of Relayers fighting similar emotional battles to myself was a comfort.
When we lost Heather last year, we lost the heart and soul of our team. Her spirit for Relay was infectious, as was her ability to appropriately nag me to make sure I was effectively fundraising. Last year, I raised another $1,000 for Relay because I simply had to - for her and for me.
Today I'm less than two weeks from Relay - and I'm struggling. I'm not close to my goal. More lives have been lost to cancer. Another year of asking my friends and family to support me yet not being able to show them any evidence of positive change - it's difficult. The fight is never-ending and cancer doesn't care that I have all kinds of other stuff going on in my life.
It's times like this when I am in awe of the survivors, the caretakers - those who don't have a choice about whether or not they wish to fight cancer that day. And I admire those who carry on the memory of loved ones, those with a bone to pick with cancer, the ones who fight back with every fiber of their being, because to them, there's no alternative. Their strength cannot be overestimated.
I'm still learning what it takes to fight back for a cause - I think we all are. But we can all be the allies and supporters of those in the trenches who've found the strength that we're looking for. We can cheer them on, thank them and recognize them. They are the champions of hope, and it is my hope we can all eventually join their ranks.