October 20, 2018 – Twelve women on my mother’s side of the family have had breast cancer. Twelve of us. When a distant cousin asked if it would be okay to include my name on a T-shirt for a fundraiser, I did not hesitate in telling her yes. She would be participating in the 2018 Komen Oklahoma City Race for the Cure and she wanted all of our names to be on a shirt she was having designed. Unfortunately, this included her mom, my mom and me, my sister, and nine other distant cousins and aunts.
I placed my order for the shirt so that I could wear it while running in my Denver neighborhood on the same day as her race, 700 miles away. When the white cotton T-shirt arrived, I cried as I traced each name that was inscribed on twelve pink ribbons that the artist had drawn into the shape of a tree. It’d been 15 years since my diagnosis and my first Komen Race.
You never forget your first time
Back then, instead of running, my sister and I danced on a stage at the event in Dallas, Texas, where I lived in 2003. Dancing might be an exaggeration. The master of ceremonies had invited breast cancer survivors to the stage while upbeat music blared on large speakers and we hopped at the chance.
Our mother laughed and waved at us from the crowd where she swayed to the music while holding hands with my two-year-old daughter. Along with Mom, we were celebrating our survivorship; my own mastectomy was the most recent battle against the disease in our trio. I’d wanted to join the thousands of runners that day, but my treatments sidelined me that particular year. I was thrilled when my mom and sister decided to join me there.
Donning pink ballcaps that the Komen organization had given us, we felt empowered being amidst so many others who were fighting and surviving cancer just like us. We loved our pink hats. I have worn mine in various cancer awareness runs ever since, including a few Komen Races. Mom wore hers in the hospital in 2007 when the cancer returned. Her body succumbed to the disease, but it couldn’t take her spirit.
Cheers from the sidelines
My cousin’s T-shirt reminded me of that. Some of us who were listed on the shirt would be rooting for my cousin on race day either from the sidelines or from other cities. Those who had passed away would be cheering from the clouds. My cousin, sister, and I positively agreed on that.
Race day arrived and I put on my running gear, pulling the shirt over my head before grabbing my pink hat, and then I headed out my front door. I set my running app for a 5K and took off at about the same time I presumed the shotgun start had sent my cousin into motion at the Oklahoma race.
It was a cool, crisp fall day in Colorado, with sparse clouds in the bright blue skies. I decided to run to the top of the quarter mile long hill near my house because it rewarded me with a view of the Rocky Mountains. Colorful autumn leaves decorated our tree-lined street and accentuated the beauty of it all. As I turned to run back down the hill, I stopped, not so much to take in the mountain view as I usually did, but to speak each name on my shirt out loud. I teared up as I said Mom’s name, “Gwen,” but instantly, I heard her whisper on the breeze. “Go on, Lisa. I’m right here with you.” I high-fived the air and resumed my run.
The finish line is in sight
Crossing the street that led into our park, I couldn’t quit smiling. I was alone, but it didn’t feel that way. I was encouraged by memories of races I’d done when there was barely any elbow room at the start and then at each mile marker, water stations quenched my thirst until the finish line finally came into sight, and the sidelines were teeming with people yelling, “Almost there! You can do it!” I thought of the enthusiastic crowd that was surely cheering my cousin along and I hoped that it powered her through to the finish line, even as I navigated the wide and quiet pathways in my park alone.
I checked my app and was delighted to see that my 5K would end near a small wooden bridge that crossed a creek ahead. It seemed fitting to cross a bridge on this day. I ran faster, feeling stronger with each stride. As my feet landed on the bridge my app alerted me that I had one-tenth of a mile to go, so I decided to leave the trail and run alongside the creek until my app chimed. My race ended right at the spot of a flat-topped boulder. I climbed atop it and closed my eyes for a moment; I felt like it was 2003 and my sister was at my side and Mom was waving at us as we did our celebration dance.
We did it!
I sat down on that big rock and texted my sister a selfie that showed my goofy lopsided grin and sweaty strands of my curly hair sticking out from under my pink hat. She responded with a photo of her wearing the same T-shirt as me but with her nursing badge hanging from her neck. Instead of running a 5K, I joked that she was running her hospital’s hallways tending to patients.
My cousin later posted pictures with her mom and family, all of them wearing the same pink ribbon family tree shirt as us. It felt good to be a part of their day—to run separate trails but for the same cause, to hear cheers from the sidelines or in the breeze, and then to finish our races by hugging on loved ones or by dancing with them in memories.
A year later: wake up and walk
September 29, 2019 – Nearly a year has passed since that shared run. I woke up before six this morning with an urging in my spirit to go for a walk on what was forecast to be a warm, sunshiny day in Denver. The same inner whispering prompted me to check on the date of the 2019 Komen event. I quickly learned that it was happening in few hours.
Instead the usual three-mile run, for various reasons, the organizers had changed the event to be a two-mile walk. I hadn’t run in months and so this new way intrigued me. And though I hadn’t signed up in advance, I couldn’t imagine being turned away if I showed up. So I pulled on my pocketed Lulus and my pink ribbon family tree shirt and hopped on the light rail to head downtown. Had I planned this in advance, I likely would have had two or three family members joining me. Instead, I was venturing out by myself, but I was never alone.
We’re in this together
From the mom and daughter I sat with on the train who were going to the walk to honor a grandmother, to the woman who traded phones with me during the walk so we could take each other’s pictures with the Denver skyline over our shoulders, I met so many friendly people. The volunteers and Komen staff were equally kind about my last-minute participation. They guided me to the survivors’ tent to claim a T-shirt and then to where I got to join the parade of hundreds of survivors who walked along a path near the cheering crowd of supporters.
I got a little crazy taking selfies and handing off my phone to ask strangers to snap pictures of me, but I wanted to record this day with me wearing the pink ribbon family tree shirt. I wanted to honor and memorialize the names of the women inscribed on my shirt and to celebrate life.
When I crossed the finish line, I didn’t dance this time. Instead I looked up to the brilliant blue sky and waved a thank you to my mom for urging me to get up and take this walk today.