For those unfamiliar with Relay for Life, it is an American Cancer Society fundraising effort held annually by many cities, towns, and large institutions across the U.S. (and, indeed, the world). Participants form teams and engage in an all-night walk-a-thon at a local track or gym to raise donations for biomedical cancer research; each team must keep at least one member walking at all times. I’ve completed a couple of Relays in my life, and in trying to explain to others my reason for participating, I often shared the following experience from my third year of medical school:
I stood nearby as the attending surgeon opened the young man’s abdomen, peered inside, paused momentarily with his head bowed as though in prayer, and then let out a single, emphatic, forlorn, “Damn.” I looked over the surgeon’s shoulder, and understood his reaction.
Thick, bloody, curd-like tumor encased the young man’s colon, and thousands of satellite lesions, like some morbid imitation of rhinestones, studded his entire abdominal cavity. “He’s got six weeks, at best,” the surgeon muttered, as a gloom fell over the operating room. The team resected the patient’s useless, toxic colon and as many of the tiny tumor outcroppings as possible, but the measures were only palliative. Modern medicine and science had no miracles to offer.
In growing better acquainted with the patient during his post-surgical stay in the ICU, I began to appreciate fully the merciless, indiscriminate reach of cancer. The young man was in his early 20s, tall and lanky, quiet and shy. He liked basketball. He added “sir” and “ma’am” to the few sentences he spoke to the nursing staff. His family visited daily, wearing flat expressions of silent, stunned shock. Every time I spoke with him, scenes from the operating room flashed across my mind, and I simply could not accept that the youthful countenance staring back at me had but six weeks to live.
“This isn’t right,” I thought, “Young people shouldn’t die like this.” But, they do, because of cancer.
I think sometimes of this young man and the life wrested away from him, the future he will never experience. In his memory, I walk in the Relay.