Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I take him with me to the poll

Every time I stand in line to vote I have this overwhelming swell of pride and I say a little silent prayer for one man who inspires me to be in that line. I just can't help but get emotional. Every time I cast my vote I think of my grandfather - a man whose patriotic duty meant more to him than anyone else I can think of.
With my beloved 'Grampa'
Like so many Americans William Duxbury must have caught his first sight of a place called America with a glimpse of a giant lady in a harbor. But he almost didn't survive the journey from England as a one year little boy, sick in his mothers arms - one of so many  passengers traveling to a land that promised a better life.

That baby who almost died on that journey became a man whose duties to his community (and the country he would know as his own) were second only to those of his family. His citizenship was a precious gift he never took for granted. 

His memory whispers still in his community of Geddes NY, even though all the houses of their old neighborhood now contain new families and new lives. He is not forgotten by anyone who ever knew him.He was a quiet, humble man who worked hard and never asked for anything more than what he earned. He never ran for public office because it wouldn't have fit his simple and quiet life. Yet, when there was something wrong he was the first one to stand up and speak up. He was the man who was always first to help a neighbor in need and first in line to petition for change when something in his community needed changing. When he passed away in December of 1988 a county law maker wrote a tribute to him in their local paper.

The man who taught me to swim also taught me to vote and to take it seriously. So at 6:30 am as I slipped that paper ballot into a digital feeding machine much different than he would have used to cast his last vote in an election just a month before he died.
I sighed and smiled after the blinking message came up  "BALLOT SUBMITTED".
Grandpa, I love you and I never, ever forget to vote.

I hope everyone has someone in their life whose soft voice or memory of it is a reminder to vote. And if tradition or duty hasn't etched itself, if there hasn't been that person, I hope that you are that guidance for someone in your future.


Thursday, October 25, 2012


When I was a little girl I was fascinated by dropping pebbles into water and watching these little circles form around their entry points. But what was more beautiful was seeing those circles widen and touch other ripples.

When we view life alone we see just one circle, but when we look outside of ourselves we can see where our circles touch the boundaries of the circles of others. They might call that being human.

Sometimes we choose to enter someone's life with purpose or intent. Sometimes that person come to us by what seems a universal accident. And in a most interesting scenario: a person can come into our lives seemingly through a random shuffle of events and we must decide that person holds something that we need in our lives. I think this kind of the way I met Mary Eggers.
Posing with Team Eggers last Saturday
I met Mary because I was searching for Zach DeRidder. A young man named Shannon Case told me as I gathered young adults in our area who were cancer survivors (via social networking and message boards) that I should 'look up this kid'. The thing was, I called the number Shannon gave me twice and I couldn't get an answer. I emailed the email I was given, but never heard back.

Shannon said 'this kid was very sick but very inspiring' and that I probably wouldn't believe it because he had met Zach competing in triathlon! This was someone I had to find...and I turned to google. This is where I first became acquainted with the Iron Momma who turned out to be Mary, through her incredible blog about Zach. It was the fall of 2007. After reading her detailed blog, I tracked down Zach's friend and found out he had been in the hospital. It turned out he desperately wanted to meet another young survivor. But I never forgot the power of Mary's word. Her heart is on her sleeve in real life. Through the reach of the internet, it's on her blog.

Zach brought so many people into my life. But in a fluky way, so did Mary, because if it wasn't for her heartfelt description of this amazing guy who I 'had to meet' perhaps I would not have called one last time or tracked him down through one of his friends. Perhaps Zach's circles and mine may have never touched. And because his life changed mine so much I might not even be doing what I do now with the knowledge I have and with the conviction I have. 

Mary's circle touched mine then....before we even officially met.

I asked her for help in the summer of 2008 when some of us were trying to help Zach win a LiveStrong bike. Mary answered in a big way and rallied everyone together through her tremendously popular blog to help him get enough votes to win. And then there was meeting her and asking her to get me in shape...and that was the beginning of things really getting good.

Mary's circle could have touched mine in the last year a hundred different ways, but if I thought about it just the same, maybe not. It could be through the nurses that I now work with...but maybe I wouldn't be there to meet them.

 It could be through the friendships I have with more athletic people than myself.  Mary's son Luc needed to find a school more supportive for his challenges - as it turned out I had just left the Norman Howard School that he now attends after Mary's long fought battle to get him there. 
A nursing friend of Mary's ends up being someone from my small high school. She remembered me, but unfortunately as the 'sick kid' I became. I think she told Mary I had 'just sort of disappeared' near the end of high school, which is true. 
* I graduated in the next year's class...maybe to become a folklore piece or ghost of sorts to many of my previous classmates. That was due largely to the fact that people in that school district in the mid 1990s didn't know what to do with a sick kid. Who knows, I hope for their sake things have changed.

In a alternate universe I may have met Mary in some entirely different way. But our circles touched in just the way that helped to change my game. 

Well, we've been waiting to see if she wins this MVP Health Ultimate Game changer contest. 
She was nominated by Brittany, a young woman with all the affection in the world for her because Mary helped her restore her own athletic confidence after bone cancer through the TLC Fit program. 

We've been waiting and waiting with baited breath to see if Mary made it through the voting to be #1. Regardless of how that contest ends, there is no contest. Mary is a game changer in my book.
I may have indicated that in my speech to introduce her for her Make A Difference award last Saturday night....I don't remember what I said frankly, because the rush of emotion was too deep. And so it was for Brittany, who joined me on stage.

Mary's circle touches too many lives - she just is a game changer. 

If I were to explain Iron Momma like those pebbles dropped into a pond it would present like a firestorm of launched pebbles. I'm so grateful to be one of the circles hers happened to hit.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A scar tells a story

The other morning I was checking in at the gym when Anne, the woman at the desk shook me from my routine.

"Do you mind if I ask you a question?" 

I knew exactly what she was going to ask because I could see her eyes on my neck.

This question used to be a reason for me to feel anxious and afraid. Just a few short years ago I might have inwardly bridled at this impending question - wondering whether curiosity was from a place of unease at the appearance of the long curving line of discolored skin carving a u shaped path from one ear to the other. Wondering whether those eyes thought me a freak.

The fear for this question is gone.

I've learned to recognize a pleading look in eyes of a select group who ask this question. These are the queries of those, not pointing out a way that I am different, but seeing someone with something and desperately wanting to ask the stranger that question, breaking through the awkwardness to do so.

"Thyroid cancer?" she asked.

I nodded. She looked relieved.

"Me too."

I sighed.
She sighed.

We talked a little and shared a bit about this butterfly shaped gland we were now both missing. We both agreed it had shaped the course of our lives...how the lack of awareness about it left us in dire straits. 

My lack of diagnosis may have cost me the carefree high school and college years I should have had, while I suffered with very real symptoms that never were correctly pinpointed. Her lack of immediate care and surgery led to a serious condition called a thyroid storm, leaving her in intensive care and near death for weeks. She still suffers from various ailments- lasting parting gifts from a cancer she was told was the "good cancer".
I believe I've heard the same two-word description of the disease that turned my whole world upside down.

My neck tells a story. The scar is its opening chapter. It's a large and cumbersome wound that healed long ago but will always and forever be visible to the naked eye. It's too long and winding to have thought to measure.Unless I wear a turtleneck or a scarf the rest of my life I'm going to continue to have these moments. Moments where someone who feels seemingly alone reaches out and wonders aloud "you too?"

I used to be angry that I was left with such a visible reminder of my first cancer. There were times I wondered how I could ever look at my reflection and feel peace. My first solid dalliance with mortality is forever etched for others to see, but I think I'm finally okay with it. I know who I am...and who I am is not simply skin deep.

I wouldn't go so far as to say "I love my scar". I wouldn't say that suddenly it's become beautiful in my eyes, that would be a lie. But I will say that it tells a story, and I've lived that story. And now I am living differently because of it...I'm on a different path...and that I am okay with.

So, the scar is mine and it's a part of who I am now, the inside worn on the outside.

I was late to start my workout the other day. But my choosing to speak with this woman made a difference in her day. It was my choice to miss Zumba (I didn't tell her) to help her realize that someone else knew that she wasn't alone. My scar was the catalyst.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Almost a lifetime ago

September 30, 2004 was my D day.
I was diagnosed with cancer on this day 8 years ago.
This day marks the dividing line between my life before cancer...and my life after it.

A few months after my surgery (hiding behind a turtleneck)

On that day 8 years ago if someone would have told me what was ahead in those hardest years, I might have thrown my hands up and given up.

If someone would have told me that by the time I'd cleared the hurdles and life altering that would come on the road to my 'cure' I'd have to go through it all over again with yet another form of cancer... I would have said no way, Jose. This is just too damn hard to face.

I'd already been through too much as a sick kid who lost most of her friends and became all but invisible at her high school as she battled her way through.  That was enough. Now was the time to make up for all that. Now was not the time for cancer. But I had no say in it.

And here I stare that date on the calendar....and realize I made it through that dark time...and many since it. But I didn't do so without a lot of support from friends and family who believed in me.
And on this day I think of them.

On this anniversary (a mixed blessing day) I also think of the different life I live now. I didn't know THEN on that last day of September that I would not only face my own battle with cancer...but the battles of others.

THEN I could not have handled the news that I would meet so many friends who would die in their pursuit to fight this disease with everything they have. That fact would have been too much to bear.

with Amber
Had someone told me I would know this disease intimately even after my battle was over...I would have said I wasn't strong enough.

Had I known that I would hold someone's hand who was preparing to die, I would have said "I can't do that."

 THEN I did not have quite the knowledge, then I did not have quite the courage. THEN I wasn't who I am now.

But I also didn't know THEN that I would have unparalleled joy and celebrate with others who walked their own roads. The friendship and bonds I'm lucky to experience fill my heart. But I only know that now.

I can't forget that this life...the one I never imagined I could work my way through, is good. Yes, there is a price to pay for it. An emotional weight  comes with knowing more about a disease that only used to be a headline for me. I can't ever "thank my lucky stars" for cancer. It was not a happy journey. It was not an easy lesson.
But it was the road I was given...I just had to decide how to travel it.

How you live is the choice you make every day. And somewhere along the way I made a decision that changed things. I was never going to go back to a life before cancer. I was never going to erase September 30th from my life history.

Somewhere along the way I figured out that cancer for me meant something more, more than a scar, or a bald head, or lost wages and opportunity...that this hard lesson would be used for something else. I am tremendously grateful, not for the cancer...but for the life I have... even after D day.

With 3 special teens

'Even the wind feels better on the other side..."  ~Christine Baze - Radiaton Katrina

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Be Bold, Be Brave, Be Better

Coach Mary works us through a stretch
Everyone has a story. 
Yes, every human being does have a story, we can't escape it. 

Sometimes our stories and our lives weave together in a way that connects us. Sometimes those interlocking threads form something that changes others around us...but when first we set out, we never know just how.

And sometimes the stories that change us are not told through the original storyteller's voice...they are told by someone who remembers and loves us.

Stories are meant to be shared...
but in the best of situations, these stories promote action and enrich our lives.

The picture above features Mary Eggers
She's a coach and a trainer. She's trained a lot of elite and stealth looking clients. But the athletes stretching in a circle around her are all cancer survivors... teenagers. 
This was taken on the final night of our TLC Fit program (through Teens Living with Cancer).

Mary enriched my life and learned my story almost four years ago because of someone else's story. A young man neither of us will forget named Zach DeRidder. That's how Mary and I met in the first place.
Don't know who Zach is? Well, just run his name through this blog's search engine and you'll see. Through this connection Mary and I traded emails for about 2 years. I followed her blog, maybe she even stumbled upon mine. But two years ago this past spring we finally met in person...because I set out to do the then seemingly impossible- by training for a 5K.

Fitness after cancer is hard. Fitness after a life of chronic illness, misdiagnosis and then two bouts with cancer should have just been buried in my list of 'never gonna get there agains'.
Zach interviewed the day Mary met him
But Zach's belief in me made me believe...and Mary's reassurance prompted me to act. It gave me the confidence to take action. Both of them made me believe I could do something bold...that I too could be brave...and wherever the road took me---somehow I knew that I would be better for it.

I also bought my first pair of true running shoes two years ago. The first pair in my now adult sized 9. Not the kind that you pick out of a bin at TJ Max, the type of footwear that had been sufficient for the non-athletic me. These were the kind that they size you for and you brace and suck in breath as they run your credit card through. I began to run...not long...not hard...not fast. But I began to see why it mattered in my life. Why I felt better, stronger and more confident in all areas. 
In the midst of this, I was working part time for Lauren.

Another connection where a story brought us together. Teens with cancer had long been overlooked by most of the medical community. When Melissa's life was taken by cancer...that void was called to her mother's attention. She decided to do something about it. I learned from the story of Melissa. And so too in time would Mary. Stories are only as inspirational as the people we hear them from. 

Melissa, from all who describe her, had an indomitable spirit. It's written all over the door of a building that teens now walk in and out of on a weekly basis. Melissa's storyteller is her mom, Lauren. I now work for Lauren in the foundation that bears her daughter's name. 

Melissa too was an active person before her cancer, and as her mom tells...an active person despite it. It's just the way she chose to live her best life.
In 2010 - October to be precise- by the time I finished that 5K...I thought about how good it would feel to give what I got from Mary to the teens I work with at Teens Living with Cancer. Mary would have to agree. DONE! And It didn't take much to convince Lauren that we should bring Mary on to the retreat I was organizing last spring for our teens.  

Lauren met Mary the day of the retreat...February 5th 2011. As I predicted, Mary arrived in a flurry of energy and bundle of inspiration. She captivated every teen in that room. She gave them a hunger for getting fit. It's her natural and effortless gift. It was the genesis of TLC Fit and from that day on a partnership was formed between two more women. Lauren and Mary. Lauren asked Mary if she would do a longer more comprehensive program if the funds could be found.

A photo shoot with Lauren
What followed has been a program we're proud of...Lauren, Mary, Katie (the U of R researcher) and myself. My good friend Andy signed on as we launched... Testosterone represent...hahaha!

You can see and hear the story of our TLC FIT program...and what Mary taught...but also what she learned in this video link

It might seem convoluted, but Zach's piece of this story is so intertwined in all of this. Bringing people together. Inspiring my belief. Bringing me back to Mary to ask her for help on a mission I might not have had the know-how to try myself. His inspiration sketched the lines that drew us all toward a program. The Zach DeRidder effect, if you will.

As his voice fades from my memory, I just have to remember he made me a different person. 
A better person. But who might he have changed by proxy?

He wanted to be remembered and have a little something that would be left behind. 

He knew what he was doing. Don't let anyone tell you he couldn't seek out hearts that would open and ears that would hear him. I think he sought me out in 2007 because he knew I would do my best to tell his story too. And he grabbed Mary's heart at the Pittsford Triathlon, just four months before I crossed his path. 

Mary meeting Zach's parents at Studio Move in February 2012
Just a dozen weeks apart, each were two very dramatically different times in Zach's life. Mary met the brave and still physically strong athlete- still battling cancer, but with the form and muscular silhouette of a champion. I met the young man frail of body and beaten down hard by an almost unthinkable catastrophy- the betrayal of his body from the cancer that refused to back down. But that frail body rallied and summoned courage far beyond the remarkable triumphs he laid down on each race course that summer before.

That's the courage that our participants drew on over the past 9 weeks of TLC Fit. That's the spirit that they summoned when the exercises seemed too hard, the time devoted seemed too much. They worked steadily and with a lot of heart to produce the action in their life. They are bold. They are brave. They are better.

But it's just the beginning. Just like my first run, my first 5K...first 14,000 foot mountain climb was just a beginning. These teens have something lit inside them. Zach, they are not finished...they're just back on their way.

Oh, and remember Zach's hero?...the one man he would have done anything to meet.
You may have heard of him.
Zach won his signed bike in 2008, sadly dying before he got the chance.

Well, Zach...our Iron Mary is going to race him in the pool so that other teens and young adults can get active again too. Once Armstrong was an underdog. No longer. The race is all in good fun of course...but isn't there something cool about a mom from Henrietta New York beating the most famous athlete in the world? 

Whoever wins...it's going to be a win for teens who want to live life fully again with their peers...and learn to do so, not with children, not with adults...with those their age.

I think even you Zach would be okay with Mary beating your hero, right?

You better be there that day---April 28---maybe with Melissa- to push some special magic into Mary's kicking legs. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

March Madness and BONA PRIDE

I remember the news splashing over papers and spilling into evening broadcasts. It made CNN, ESPN, a segment on HBO Real Sports. It was the heartbreaking scandal any St. Bonaventure alum now remembers with quiet regret.

But nearly eight years of pain washed away Sunday when the Bonnies won the Atlantic 10 Tournament, earning entrance in to the NCAA tournament! 

Different headlines this time around!

My dad met my boyfriend Patrick and I at Rookies in Pittsford to watch the big game. I guess you could say I was over the moon happy watching my Bonnies do it, playing hard and solid to beat Xavier 67-56! 

Not only are the Bonaventure men the big news.
It's a story of basketball success for both camps as the women too are in this year's NCAA tournament. It's a banner season for the brown and white...there's no doubt.

While wearing my sweatshirt out and about the other day someone I'm assuming an alum or maybe even a fan in general shouted "Go Bonas!" 

It's bringing me back to a day so very long ago when I was a senior in college. In 2000 you felt that surge of excitement in the campus air. Everyone knew history was in the making for the brown and white- the little college that could. Just entering the arena to play its first round face-off against Kentucky was something bigger than itself. Win or lose we knew it was a game-changer. Watching our Bonnies fight tooth and nail in double overtime was truly amazing. Sure they lost then...but the loss is not what I remember. I remember the heart that our team showed. I remember the pride our school had for them just making it this far.

Well, it's here again! This time the men's tournament entry was earned by a title! I can't explain to you how good this feels. This time the women join them in the tournament glory. Both teams are poised to give it their all. I'm always proud of my alma mater...that never changed. In some way this feels like vindication and a return to something of a by-gone day. We just have to hope they can hold the magic as they face-off against Florida State.

Who's watching Friday? Who's with me?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Courage when it counts

Remembering an amazing man- my cousin Gary Giudice who died this past weekend.

Gary with his son Nicky

The universe brought our families back together after my Gramma died.
And two short weeks later, he called me to tell me he needed advice...he had cancer.
Pancreatic cancer.

He asked me for any resources I could think of to help him start out on the right path. Luckily, in my line of work I knew a lot of places for him to go. I made a few calls...but the gnawing feeling hit me each time I picked up the receiver. Why now? Just when we were getting to know him and his family again.

I can't tell you how my heart sank when hearing his voice catching on the phone. But his voice still had the lilt of optimism. He wasn't accepting no for an answer, he was going to give it 'his all' for his family. "I've got a lot of people right here who need me." He was solid and certain that he was ready for the fight what he knew lay ahead of him. And he did. He fought for almost two years with a determination that defied the rigors his body endured. And over those two years we got to know him very well. And we were blessed for that precious time. So very blessed.

Life and our paths circled back and family and true friends don't measure circumstance or count hours to define what exists between them. It just is. And that's the way my cousin lived his life. To a new generation of their family we were unfamiliar faces. But nonetheless family. The bond strengthened over those 22 months.

When I was wrapped up in work getting media for our hole in one contest last year...when the rains threatened to ruin our outdoor event, a card arrived at our center. A note and a check were tucked inside. As sick as he was, he took the time to write how proud he was of me in the card and how much he wanted to help the teens going through the disease.

Gary fought so valiantly against one of the toughest cancer diagnosis there is. He rallied like a champ...and even in his final days when Mom and I visited, he was worried about us. "Please drive safe." That was the last thing he said as we waved goodbye to him from the kitchen. He was smiling, even with all the pain. 

My cousin embraced life...and anyone who walked into his life as though you'd been there forever. You didn't just get a hug...you were folded into his arms at the same time you were folded him into his heart. 

And because of that it will be impossible to erase the memory of Gary Giudice.
Miss you. 

     How do you deal with a cancer diagnosis? My cousin went sky diving. 
Live fearless. Live your dreams.