to all the fighters

Twelve weeks ago I signed my life away and set out on this crazy journey training for my first fight through Haymakers for Hope. (Literally, I signed on the line saying that it’s fine if I am seriously injured or die while training for or during this fight.) In the brief interviews that will be played before the fight, we were asked to state who we’re fighting for. In other words, who we know with cancer that is motivating us to climb into the ring and raise money for cancer research. I had trouble with this question, especially since our answer had to be constrained to about 12 seconds long. Sadly, as I suspect is true for many of you, the people in my life who have had their lives turned upside down by cancer are too many to count, nonetheless recite in 12 seconds. I said something vague like “I’m fighting for all those who have lost the battle to cancer.” But that doesn’t really cover it. I have lost friends and family to this disease. I know many survivors of cancer whose lives will never be the same. I believe cancer research is worthwhile and it is the only possibility for finding better treatments for cancer, so I wanted to raise money to support this. But who am I fighting for? How should I answer that? Jumping into the ring for 6 minutes seems pretty wimpy compared to the fight cancer patients face every day. I feel a little phony even saying that I’m fighting for one of these brave men and women. So this post is my sort of unsuccessful, roundabout effort to address this question.

The first time I came face to face with cancer besides the St. Jude specials, which always made me cry even as a little kid, was when my friend’s mom died of cancer when I was in the fourth grade. “Why her?” I thought. “Why did she have to die? Why not me instead? Wouldn’t that be better?” I vowed to cure cancer, and I set out on my quest by reading books with photos of children with leukemia. This was before I understood that there are countless different types of cancer, and even the same type of cancer in different people can have disparate faces. When I was nine years old, cancer was a problem that was unsolved, obviously, because I wasn’t thinking about it. I imagined that surely, if I put my mind to it, I would find the answer that everyone else had been missing. More than 15 years later, I would, in fact, spend a year actually researching melanoma, a type of cancer that is virtually untreatable once it metastasizes. I took tumor samples from patients with melanoma and implanted them in mice to study. When I would later remove these tumors from the mice, I remember thinking how strange it was to be holding the living cells of someone who had already died. How sad that what was left of this person who had a life and friends and family, talents and dreams, is a teaspoon full of cells and, with those that loved her, the memory of her life.

From age nine to thirty-one, I lost more loved ones to cancer, whom I still miss. There is one person I think of immediately when I think of cancer though; one person whose memory causes a distinct pain, materializing as an aching chest and a tightening in my throat. I’ll refer to him here as M. M was one of my students when I was a Graduate Student Instructor for an Introductory Biology Lab at the University of MI. On the first day of class, they always tell you to do some sort of silly ice breaker—games that few people like, but everyone is willing to do, since it is the first day of class, and they aren’t sick of you yet. For this class, I chose “Two Truths and a Lie,” a game where individuals tell the group two things that are true about him- or herself and one thing that is a lie, and the class must guess which one is the lie. In my science classes, I might say something like “I play the harp, I have 6 nieces and nephews, and I run marathons.” The truth is, I actually have 9 nieces and nephews, so that one is the lie. I know, tricky, tricky. Most students say they’ve gone sky diving, they’ve been to 6 continents, they have a little sister, etc. The game that day was progressing normally. Students were being congenial, and we were laughing at the more outlandish truths and lies. Then came M’s turn. “I have had a heart transplant, I have cancer, and I wear contacts.” The room of 20 teenagers grew still enough to hear the raindrop-sized beads of sweat seeping from my pores.

Did he not understand the rules? Maybe he thought it was Two Lies and One Truth? My most fervent prayer in that moment was that he was wearing contacts. No, of course he wasn’t. His vision was just fine. As it turns out, M had a heart transplant when he was seven, and he was presently, at 18 years old, battling lymphoma. My heart sank. We were all silent, not knowing exactly how to respond. My tongue felt paralyzed in the parched desert of my mouth.

“Wow, I really killed the mood with that one,” he joked, the cheerful smile beneath his bright red, neatly cropped hair, easing the tension. A few kids chuckled nervously. I stuttered something and tried to move on to another student, swearing to myself never to play this stupid game again.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from M after that most interesting introduction, but he turned out to be the student every teacher wants in his or her classroom. I think anyone who has taught before would agree that one student can make or break a classroom. One bad attitude can turn 20 good students against you. On the other hand, one enthusiastic, determined, outspoken student can create a dream classroom, full of engaged and dedicated students. M was the latter. He came to class prepared, he was polite and friendly to me and other students, he was helpful, he was very intelligent, he brought life into the classroom with a bright, mildly sarcastic, sense of humor. He became a light in the classroom and quickly moved to the top of my list of favorite students.

I was sure he would be fine. He was such a great kid. He had made it so far. I knew that his story would have a happy ending. He would triumph over the odds again.

Then one day I received an email from M saying that, due to his illness, he would be forced to withdraw from classes for the remainder of the semester. My heart was heavy, but I was still hopeful. I followed his progress on Caring Bridge, certain that one day I would find that he was in remission and would be coming back to school in the fall. That day never came. I still remember the last day I checked up on him. I saw the words I had been dreading. M had passed away a few weeks earlier in June—nine months after I met him. My heart ached. The question “why?” echoed in my mind again, but I knew by this time that there is no answer to that question.

There is no sufficient explanation for the cruelties of life. Kids die, babies starve, really good people suffer. That is how it is. Nor is there a way to take on the opponent of someone else, as I’d wished so long ago and still sometimes wish today. Occasionally, I have the privilege of assisting someone from the corner, but it is not my fight. I can fight only my own opponents.

Some people have bigger, scarier opponents than others. Some opponents are found on a medical chart, and some are not. When it comes down to it though, we are all fighting something, and the fight is real, no matter the opponent. We are fighting for our lives, we are fighting to be heard, we are fighting poverty, we are fighting addiction, we are fighting abuse, we are fighting for justice, we are fighting to be loved and to love, we are fighting for our friends or family, sometimes we are even fighting ourselves, but we are all fighting something.

I think perhaps if I could remember this always, I would have more mercy on the people around me, even on myself. We don’t have a ticket that lists the opponents of those around us though. It’s easy to forget that the guy who yells at me for walking my dog through the park is in the ring with his own opponent. Maybe he is losing in the twelfth round, weary and beaten. The woman I think has it all together with her beautiful body, fantastic job, all those friends…she is fighting something too, and it is real and overwhelming. And me? I have my own opponents. Some days, they beat the shit out of me. Perhaps if I could remember that we all lose sometimes, no matter how hard we fight, if I could give myself and others a break here and there, if I could see the people I pass on the street and work with and run into at the grocery store as fighters just like me…maybe then I could find the strength and compassion to help, to be gracious and loving, to be patient, to be merciful. Maybe if we could all acknowledge that we are surrounded by fighters, we would find that none of us are ever fighting alone—that there is always someone in our corner, someone cheering us on, someone to take care of us between rounds. Perhaps this way we could see more victors, or at least lift each other up when we’re down to go just one more round. And then when we fight the last round of the last fight, we’ll know we’ve fought hard in the ring, and outside the ring, we were the best cornerman we could be.

That is my answer that doesn’t really answer the question “for whom am I fighting?”

Here’s to all the fighters. May you always have someone in your corner. May you always find strength to get up one more time. May you find comfort when you lose the fight. May you be generous when you win. May we all find courage and hope together. Because we are all fighters.

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