My little sister, who is nearly as passionate about cancer awareness as I am, has been part of numerous Relay for Life events, and she's not even 18 yet.
On the other hand, I'm 26 and had never attended one. I knew Relay for Life included a ton of walking, raising funds for the American Cancer Society, and raising cancer awareness, but otherwise I didn't know much at all.
Earlier this fall, I received an all-staff email from the team captain of the Relay for Life team at my school. She wanted to take a break this year and needed someone to be the new captain. I volunteered, since someone who has never attended an event is most qualified to become the captain (obviously). To be fair, I do only have one ball, which is a qualification, I believe.
I could fill this post about attending team captain meetings to get ready for the big event on April 21, 2018 at Massaponax High School. I could talk about how many steps I took (over 20,000 for a total of about 9.5 miles, according to my FitBit). I could share about the escape room my team led twice (with the record being 11 minutes). I could captivate you with the tale about how I won a grill in a brutal silent auction that came down to a blind bid against another team captain, which ended in a tie, but my opponent let me have it "since I am a survivor."
But this isn't what Relay for Life is all about.
Relay for Life is to celebrate cancer survivors
The first lap for Relay for Life is the survivor and caregiver lap. Each survivor's name is called individually, and they are presented with a balloon. Their caregiver is invited to join them on the lap as they kick of the twelve hours of walking around the track.
Having a last name like Birckbichler ensures two things: it will be one of the first called alphabetically and it absolutely will be butchered in pronunciation every single time. When "Justin Brickbirchlir" was called, I wasn't even near the track, since I was looking for my survivor sash, which I couldn't find in my cancer survivor gift bag.
Each survivor is given a white sash that proclaims their survivor status. I thought I had overlooked mine in my bag, but upon closer inspection, I realized my bag was lacking one. (I do also realize this also describes my scrotum.) Resigned to not having a sash, I took my lap, as my mom joined me.
While I was taking the cancer survivor lap, I noticed one guy was walking alone. I joined up with him and asked him about his experiences. He said he also had testicular cancer but didn't need further treatment beyond his orchiectomy. He shared that he didn't feel like he should have been in that survivor lap, but in my opinion, he had every right to be there. Not having chemo doesn't make his experience any less significant.
After completing the lap, I was determined to get my sash. I never received my letterman's jacket I assumed I'd be getting on remission day, so I wanted my sash. I went up to the Survivor Team Lead Coordinator, Tammy, and spoke with her. She's an awesome woman and she got me my sash. I also decided that I'm not much of a sash guy, but it perfectly fit as a headband. Party on, Garth.
One of the other special Relay for Life events that Tammy organized for the cancer survivors was a special luncheon for survivors and caregivers. It was completely free and was delicious, but it was more than just a meal. There's a level of camaraderie among cancer survivors that I couldn't possibly capture in a blog post. Being in a tent with a bunch of fellow survivors was uplifting. We had all defied the odds and showed cancer who was willing to keep surviving.
Tammy also arranged for each cancer survivor to receive a free gift. I had donated a few books I had bought when I was determined to regain the ability to read post-chemo brain but had never gotten around to reading. I wrote printed labels (since I have terrible handwriting) with an inscription in each one. I included my contact information and hope to hear from whomever picked these books.
I personally selected a nice assortment of pencils that were make from tree branches, which will be a welcome addition to my workshop. Again, it wasn't the gift that mattered - it was the dedication that Tammy put forth. She said it was her ninth year doing it, and she truly made every cancer survivor feel like a rock star, which I guess makes me Rod Stewart.
Some guys have all the luck, but after lunch, I couldn't stop thinking about the conversation with my new testicular cancer friend. While we were talking during that first lap, I learned he basically said, "I Don't Want to Talk Talk About It" at first and put off going to the doctor for a while. I guess he realized if he wanted to stay Forever Young, he had to make a call to nurse Maggie May. This discussion sparked a mission for the rest of the day.
This is part one in a three-part series. Be sure to check back later for my second major takeaway from my experience at Relay for Life 2018.