With the excitement and emotions of my “last” Relay For Life coming up in a matter of days, I have found myself thinking back to the very first time I walked around the track for Relay. It was the spring of 2001 and I was eight years-old. Only months before, my mother had completed a grueling year of treatment for advanced breast cancer. Although the tapestry of our family would ultimately be changed overtime by her diagnosis, on that spring day in 2001, life was good. My mom’s hair had grown back and in my eight year-old mind, cancer was a thing of the past. I ran around to the different campsites, running up to strangers shouting, “Guess what?! My mom beat cancer!”
While reminiscing about this with my dad over spring break, he reminded me that somewhere in our photo collection, there exists only one picture from that entire event in 2001. Well, I made it my mission to find it. I could see the picture clearly in my mind but I needed to see the tangible evidence of the beginning of my journey with Relay, something that has become so central in my life in the past four years. I can’t explain it, I just needed to find that picture.
I pulled out all the photo boxes and albums in our house and arranged them around my room. As I combed through years worth of bad haircuts, toothless smiles, and way too many skorts (remember that lovely combination of shorts and a skirt, 90’s ladies?), my heart sank at the end of each box. The disorganization of our photo collection made it impossible to pin point its location chronologically and I feared we had lost it. Down to the last box. I said out loud to myself, “It’s not going to be in here. Don’t get your hopes up.” I started through the box. Again, the photos were in no particular order, baby photos mixed in with elementary and middle school. Last three photos. I took a deep breath, preparing myself for the inevitable disappointment. I flipped through them. And there it was, the last photo in the last box. I think I laughed out loud in disbelief. I am not even making this up, folks.
It’s not the best photo. In fact, the only face you can see completely is Mom’s. But someone on April 27th, 2001 saw this family walking together, united after more than a year of uncertainty and decided to capture this simple moment. A family who, a year before, was only given a 40% chance of still being together a year later. I remember this moment so vividly. I was SO proud to help push my mom around the track, a survivor of the beast that tried to take her from us that year.
Ten years later, another photo was taken. Not only would it be our last Relay event together as a complete family, it would also be the last photo the four of us would ever take together. Taken a month before my mom passed away, it was among the last times I spent with my mom outside of the hospital. It is framed on my desk, engraved on a necklace, and etched into my heart.
Both of these photos remind me of why I do what I do with Relay For Life. Relay brings people together, whether it’s the precious time we have with our families or with the families we create among our friends. Relay has created these moments that I will always cherish. Relay has given me the opportunity to turn a painful experience into one that motivates me to help effect change in cancer research for future generations of cancer fighters and families like my own.
I have since added that picture from 2001 to our family’s last photo. Throughout the craziness and stress of putting together UNC’s Relay event, looking at these two pictures has helped me not lose sight of what we are trying to do at Relay. They sit on my desk, reminding me of where this journey began and that even though this is my last college Relay, it will never really be over. I will always fight for more families to share these moments together, just as my mom fought to be here with hers.