I was about to start high school when my dad was diagnosed with a grade three brain tumor. Even at that age, I did not fully understand the severity of his cancer or what the next steps entailed. Luckily—with one of the best brain surgeons from Duke Medical Center and the right treatment—my dad survived and has never relapsed. Life completely changed for him at the age of 50, and he was never able to return back to work, but we thank God every day for His miracle.
As I started high school, I noticed there was a football game held every September for Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month honoring a student I never had the chance to meet. Matt Hobby passed away from Ewing’s Sarcoma at the age of 18. Ewing’s Sarcoma is found mainly in the bones or tissue of children—which can’t always be operated on.
Facing this fact at a young age showed me how each cancer and every person is unique. My dad might have survived through chemotherapy and radiation, but he was fully-grown and had a strong immune system. The fact that no new drugs have been developed for children’s cancer in the last 30 years made my stomach churn.
These kids need treatments specifically designed for their smaller bodies. Only 4% of government funding is dedicated toward childhood cancer research, with the other 96% percent only funding research for adult cancers.
Growing up, we see pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness everywhere we go, and simple awareness can go a long way. As a freshman coming into the University of Georgia, I decided to start the first Rally Foundation non-profit college chapter to start spreading cancer awareness to a younger generation—normally childhood cancer does not attract advocates until it directly affects someone’s child. Many parents thanked our club for putting their children first; they know that it’s hard for college students to picture themselves in their shoes.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in these parents’ lives and happy that my club will be continuing next year, even when I am no longer a student. My club members are passionate about this cause, and I hope more colleges will be inspired to start their own chapters.
Now, as I walk away from my four years and countless hours of maintaining the club at UGA, I know that these kids will always be my top priority. Advocating for this cause has changed my outlook on life itself.
I had a major surgery in college that gave me a reality check about my health. I remember feeling depressed during the recovery, but then I thought about the kids beating cancer. They are technically “in recovery” their whole lives due to side effects from their harsh treatments. If they can handle it, so can I.
Just when I thought I could live a normal life again, last year I woke up with an excruciating pain in my arm. I couldn’t use it for a month, and the pain soon spread to my neck. Doctors found in my MRI that I have Type One Chiari Malformation, which is unfamiliar to many people because of a lack of awareness.
To put Chiari in my own words, my brain is too big for my skull and my cerebellum is pushing on my spinal cord. Thankfully, Type One means I have enough space right now where my spinal fluid can still flow freely and I will not need brain surgery. Neck pain, headaches, weakness/numbness of muscles, and balance problems are the main symptoms I live with.
I am in the process of changing my life around to live more comfortably and continue to monitor my Chiari. I have endured months of physical therapy and spend more hours in doctors’ offices than people twice my age. Daily activities like driving, sitting, sleeping, and typing this article bring me horrible pain. But even though I physically cannot give these kids my signature piggy-back ride anymore, I will always think of them.
Any kind of head injury worsens my Chiari. For the people who don’t know me, I am a very high energy—and often clumsy—person. However, I hate living life in fear. I hate being terrified to ride a bike or play sports. I thrive for adventure, but anything that puts my body at risk is a big “no no.”
In the past, I have thought “why me?” I hated being jealous and comparing my life to others. I learned to turn away from those negative thoughts because that was not the way God wanted me to handle my pain.
I thank God for using my pain to help me become a stronger person. I thank Him for showing me how to use my passion to help others. The quote I live by and will continue to as I monitor my Chiari is: “Use your pain to work purpose in your life.”
Without having fought for these kids, I know I would not have the positive approach to live life that I do now. It is so important to always be thankful, no matter how bad my situation may seem. I enjoyed a normal childhood and so many kids cannot even say that. These “superheroes” fight hard, never give up, and of course change the world.
“It is a curious thing the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited and that eventually all of us end up under some sheet never to wake up. And yet, it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls through the air and there is a sickly dark moment of surprise as you try to readjust the way you thought of things.” – Lemony Snicket
Lemony Snicket brilliantly puts into words how I felt the moment my brother took his last breath. He was diagnosed a little over a year before he died. Acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer that quickly and aggressively attacks the bone marrow.
‘Death’, as defined by Merriam Webster, is the ending of a particular person’s life. By that definition, my brother died the day he was diagnosed. His life was over. He could no longer plan for anything in his life. Simple tasks began to grow harder and his cognitive ability lowered.
I think the cancer treatment played an equal part in my brother’s demise. The medicine and procedures my brother received killed his mentality way before the cancer physically ended his life.
For this reason, my brother chose death. He could no longer endure the endless amount of chemotherapy being pumped into his body. The poking and prodding of needles day after day. The endless amounts of biopsies, ranging from orbital to spinal! I had never seen someone endure so much, only to have no promise of getting better.
He couldn’t bear to live his life that way anymore and so he told my family he wanted to stop treatment. My parents were devastated. I know that the only reason my brother pulled through for as long as he did was for us. He was always more concerned about how my parents, my siblings, and I were feeling.
I think I am the only one who fully supported his decision to end his life. I began to think it was selfish of me to make him put up this fight that we all, unfortunately, knew he was not going to win. I feel like we all feared his death way more than he did. He wanted nothing more than to be at peace. After all, as Albus Dumbledore says, “To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” My brother was ready to begin his.
It should not be looked at as an end but a new beginning. Once you stop fearing death, there is a lot less to fear in life. I can’t be sure what happens after death but I do believe it has to be a peaceful place. I find comfort in it, seeing my brother ready for that part of his journey made me not fear mine. Death is not scary. Death is warm. Death is a promise that this life isn’t forever, and I love that.
If death ceased to exist nobody would care for people the way they do. Nobody would cherish memories the way they do. Nobody would love the way they do. All aspects of our humanity could not be the same. People live so passionately because life is not promised. Imagine a world without death and it’s an apathetic one. Death is essential for us to live life intensely, for us to truly live it to the fullest.
Speak with anyone within the Camp Kesem community- counselor, camper, benefactor, family member, or friend of the organization- about “what Camp Kesem means,” and you will almost certainly hear the word “magic” within five to ten minutes of conversation.
I’m being generous with my estimate. More likely it will tumble out of their mouths, as if involuntarily, within the first few breathless, beaming seconds of their response.
I have found this to be an uncommonly reliable phenomenon: those who have experienced Camp Kesem will talk about Camp Kesem, and those who talk about Camp Kesem will talk about it in terms of the word magic and all its derivative forms (i.e. magical, magically, #MagicMonday, etc.). This has something to do with the fact that Kesem, roughly translated from Hebrew, means magic.
I have been a Camp Kesem counselor for three years but have been deeply suspicious of the maudlin and melodramatic for over twenty-two. So I feel qualified to comment on this subject of magic as it relates to Kesem.
My hope is to respond to these questions honestly and thoroughly: among hundreds of philanthropic organizations and charitable causes, how can Camp Kesem be considered unique? And if it can be, does this uniqueness have anything at all to do with magic?
Of course, trying to answer these questions inevitably calls to mind scenes from camp. Most people who have participated in Camp Kesem would feel compelled to rely on something to the effect of, “you just have to be there” when challenged about the magic of camp. And while the effect of camp is probably more profoundly understood firsthand, I realize that not everyone can or will experience it.
So for the purposes of this piece, I’ll do my best to describe two personally impactful moments from camp and explain whether or not I find anything magical in the memory of them. Camp Kesem is a lot of fun. Watch our videos on YouTube if you need convincing. There are songs, sports, crafts, kayaks, rope courses, relay races, zip lines and zorbs. There are entire afternoons dedicated to covering people in shaving cream. The phrase “ice cream dance party” is used with surprising regularity.
I watched one of my fellow counselors start to eat a cracker just as one of our ten-year-old campers asked him a question about the day’s schedule. He seized the opportunity and spat out most of the cracker as he answered her. She started to laugh and told him not to speak with his mouth full.
He stuffed in another two crackers and insisted over the sound of his chewing and spewing that there was nothing in his mouth. She started laughing harder, and he immediately added another. More flying cracker bits, more laughter. A simple formula.
Half a dozen saltines later (this the epitome of dry humor), the joke had only become funnier to our camper. She was hooked on the bit and this little girl- her mother’s body riddled with tumors- was unable to stifle her joy.
The great majority of interactions at Camp Kesem are similar in tone to the one I just described: lively, lighthearted, and characterized by joy. Given the nature and purpose of the camp, however, there are also those moments that feel very different: deeper, weightier, and perhaps more difficult to understand. In these instances it isn’t always clear what to say or how to behave, other than to convey some sense of sympathy and support.
At last summer’s camp, I was woken up one night by one of my kids crying. This particular camper was eight years old at the time, perfectly happy and good-natured in all the time I had spent with him. His crying wasn’t loud or labored enough to make me think that he was in physical pain. It sounded soft and steady, as if it had been dammed up for some time and was now flowing out naturally.
I went over to him and asked him what was wrong. He said he didn’t know. I asked if something had upset him that night. He said that nothing had. I asked if something had scared him. He said that he didn’t know what he was scared of. I asked if there was anything I could do for him. He told me he wasn’t sure.
I stood next to his bed for a few more minutes while he continued his almost inaudible cry. Eventually he seemed to tire himself out, all of his emotional energy spent. When I thought he had fallen asleep, I started to walk back to my bed. He called my name very quietly.
Much of what people involved with Camp Kesem mean when they talk about magic is captured within these two stories and others like them. Now, of course, there’s nothing magical about laughing or crying per se. It’s certainly remarkable to see kids face their parent’s illness with cheerfulness, resilience, and grace. And it is jarring to feel so emotionally connected to someone you might have known for only a few days.
But those feelings themselves aren’t necessarily otherworldly or magical. For something to be considered supernatural, it must transcend the ordinary in such a way that it belongs to a definitively different state: what is becomes something wholly different than what was.
When we talk about cancer, we know we’re talking about a disease of abnormality. There are cells growing abnormally in a person’s body. By definition, it isn’t right, and it’s not the way things are supposed to be. And it is the task of doctors and scientists and lab technicians and tens of billions of dollars to return the body to normalcy.
But what can be done to oppose cancer if we’re not researchers in a lab and our donations are subject to limitations? I believe Camp Kesem has provided something close to the perfect answer to that question. We recognize that cancer affects more than just cells and tissue.
That means we laugh if we want to. That means we cry when we need to. That means we make memories and spend time with the people we love. It would seem, after all, that these are the things we should be doing.
And if Camp Kesem can really, authentically, absolutely change the abnormal qualities of a child’s life and return them to something resembling normalcy, then one must start to wonder what kind of work this organization is doing. What words can we use to describe such a change?
Ask any Camp Kesem camper what they would do with just one magic power and the answer (after a few obligatory comments about becoming a billionaire, invisible, or able to fly) is sure to be the wholesale eradication of cancer from the face of the earth. The disease would simply be no more.
It would not have been obvious to me, before attending camp, how their desire for some magical relief from their concerns might be realized. It was only in forming relationships with campers and other counselors that I started to understand what was really happening at Camp Kesem. This was the instrument by which wishes became reality.
If they couldn’t rid the world of cancer, then at least maybe they had a chance to rid themselves of its devastating incidental effects: feelings of fear, loneliness, and helplessness in childhood.
Witnessing and participating in this process feel just a little bit different than any other charitable cause I have been a part of. It feels something like magic. And so it feels like Kesem.
Some of the more pragmatic readers of this piece will be disposed to stop short of invoking the supernatural and will instead invest in the wonders of oncological research. While I commend those efforts, I can assure all of my fellow skeptics that this organization is as important in the fight against cancer as any other.
Our fight is taken up on the front of childhood, of innocence, of peace of mind, and of a normal way of life. As we continue to battle, we look to the care of the wounded.
Everyone has regrets: something you should not have done, or maybe something you should have. Whether that means a hook up that should have never happened or not going on that trip to Europe, we all have them. My biggest regret, however, is one that continues to haunt me. I wanted to make sure people understand that they are not alone when they face such emotional issues. I want to share my mess that has become my message.
When I was six years old, my mother had to start going to the hospital. I never thought anything of it. She was sick, so she would get better. That was what happened to people who were sick. My six-year-old brain couldn’t understand that cancer was not your every day cold.
The hospital was boring and no place for someone my age. I did not want to be there. All I wanted to do was play and have fun. I wanted to be with my friends. Why did I have to be stuck there? Why me? Why was my family not like everyone else?
My mom was always sleeping when we were in the hospital. This chapped-lipped, bald-headed woman was not my mother. This woman silently staring at me with glazed brown eyes was a stranger to me. My mother was fun-loving. She had beautiful, brown hair. She was not this woman who lay in a pale, blue hospital gown, constantly surrounded by men and woman in white coats.
So, I left her alone in her hospital bed with my dad. My mom suffered while I decided to play with the nurses instead. They wanted to make me laugh. They wanted to play with me.
And, unfortunately, one night it was. I can so clearly remember my dad pulling my sister and I into his room and telling us mommy had passed away last night. My sister immediately began to cry. I did not. I did not understand. What did he mean she was not coming back? She was my mother. Where had she gone?
I had wasted my last moments with my mother and with people I will never, and have never, seen again. How could I have done that to my poor mom? Or even my dad? They are battling a life-taking disease together, and I was just a stupid, attention-seeking girl. I do not even remember my last words to her.
So, I became a devoted daughter to my father and built up a huge emotional wall. Everything I did was for him. I wanted to make him proud in order to make up for the disgrace I had done to my mother. Every club I joined, every position I ran for was all for him to love me and be proud of me. I only had one biological parent left, and I was determined to get it right this time.
I was a woman consumed. “Do it for your father. Daddy would hate to see you do badly on this test. How could you disappoint him like that? He would want you to be president of your class. Why didn’t you push harder?” So, I pushed. To be better.
I was wrong. I had to constantly tell myself, “Stay strong. Do not let them see how this affects you.” I told myself that everyday. Every counseling session. Every time someone called my step-mom my real mom. Every stupid “your mom” joke. I held back tears.
It continued to bother me, but I had never been truly affected by it until I started college. It started out like any other school; I became super involved and still hoped to make my dad proud. However, college had introduced me to something I had never experienced before: the power of alcohol.
Alcohol was my ultimate escape. It started to become pretty prevalent in my life, as it does with most college students. It made me feel fun and alive. Yet, “Blackout Annabelle” was not fun like other people. I did not do stupid things and make people laugh. “Blackout Annabelle” finally had no more boundaries and could truly express my fears and my biggest regret.
My friends in college were the first people to truly get my full story. My true self was revealed; there was no turning back. They discovered that I hated myself for not caring enough for my mother in her last hours. I hated the fact that cancer treatments can cure some but leave some to die. I hated that my sister and I might be next, and the same thing might happen to my future family.
This was the first time I was honest with my friends and myself. No counselor or adult had been able to break down that wall. Unfortunately, it was alcohol-induced. All the same, I woke up the next morning feeling relieved. I had, I guess you could say, officially confessed my sin, my big regret.
I honestly still fight these feelings. It is a constantly battle. However, I have come to terms with the fact that I need to be more open with my friends and, mostly, myself.
I have learned to channel my sadness and regret through Relay For Life. I run and raise awareness about cancer. There, I am surrounded by people who have suffered just as I have. They understand and support me. I am able to make my father proud in an organization that supports the memory of my mother.
I can share my story and work towards a cause that ensures this regret will not happen to any more daughters. I could not be more thankful for everything that they have done for me.
I honestly do not know where I would be without my friends. They know every flaw and every regret I have; and yet, they still stand by my side and pick me up when I’m down. I believe that they were sent to me by my mom, as her way of saying, “I forgive you. Now, forgive yourself.”
The main point of this story is forgive yourself. A life filled with regret is no life at all. Be true to yourself, emotionally and physically. Happiness will find you if you are willing to find it.
When I saw that becoming a Health Community Ambassador was something that Wish Dish was doing, I jumped at the chance. By serving in this role I can impact so many people and the health community by helping people share their stories.
I’ve come up with some goals to accomplish along the way.
My ultimate goal while serving as a Wish Dish Health Community Ambassador is to create a community and safe haven. I want the Wish Dish Health Community to be an open forum for everyone to share their stories.
By providing a community for everyone to share their stories I hope it leads to resources for others to use. I want Wish Dish Health to serve as an outlet for people to share their resources and stories to hopefully help just one person who reads their story.
I want someone to read a story and realize that someone else has been affected by cancer, suicide, multiple sclerosis, addiction, etc. and now they have a contact person to serve as a resource for helplines, spiritual/religious resource, foundations, etc.
By allowing people to share their stories about how they been affected by suicide, depression, anxiety, etc. it brings attention to these health topics that need to be pushed to the forefront of research so that we can work towards a cure or more help for those wanting to live a normal life in the community.
Mental health and disabilities have become such taboo topics to discuss. I’m hoping through Wish Dish Health that people are willing to talk more and more about these topics in order to bring them into the light of health topics and let people know that its OK to discuss these topics with one another. We want to encourage these conversations in order to help save just one more life.
The more people are willing to share their stories and experiences then it forces people to start a conversation. This allows people to become more aware of health issues that are affecting so many people around the world today.
I want people to learn as much as they can about different health topics. Research topics like autism, cancer, HIV/AIDS, schizophrenia, ADD/ADHD, Zika, diabetes, etc. There are plenty of resources online to learn more.
TED Talks has a great piece on autism by Temple Grandin you should check it out!
In May I’ll graduate with my BSN and I hope to use that degree to help change the lives of NICU babies and their families. But for now I want to use Wish Dish Health to help change and save lives.
By serving as a Wish Dish Health Community Ambassador it will help expand my knowledge on many health issues as well as see how people cope with certain things. This will help me tremendously with my professional development as well as help me connect better with my patients.
Sports have always been my thing. I started playing soccer when I was three. It was my first love, but I never thought 19 years later it would be the reason I landed my first job.
Growing up, I was a tomboy and always wanted to spend my time around anything to do with sports. With a fitness instructor mom, a football coach father, and an extremely athletic older brother, sports were always happening around our home. SportsCenter was the show of choice in the Conklin household and schedules were always made around weekday practices and weekend tournaments.
Blacksburg, Virginia became home for me after a late recruiting process. My mom went to Virginia Tech, and as a little girl, I dreamt of playing soccer in the ACC for the Hokies. My dad knew how badly I wanted to be a Hokie, but we kept to what extent of it from my mom knowing she wouldn’t be able to hold it in.
I’ll never forget leaving Blacksburg after a soccer camp in 2010 crying to my dad in the car about how badly I felt Tech was the place for me. I didn’t know why. I just had this feeling and knew it was where I needed to be.
My recruiting process was interrupted during my sophomore year in high school when my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Soccer was my emotional and mental outlet, but searching for schools fell far down my to-do list.
My dream came true a few months later when I received a call from Chugger Adair, the head coach of Virginia Tech, on my way home from an indoor track meet. He invited me up for a visit on campus. I remember trying my hardest to keep my cool, but once I hung up, I screamed at the top of my lungs with tears streaming down my face. My mom did the same when I called her after I caught my breath.
I visited campus once more and committed on April 2, 2011. Five years later, I look back at my four years on the Virginia Tech women’s soccer team and truly feel like I have accomplished my childhood dream; the only thing I ever really envisioned as a child.
I earned a scholarship after my freshman year, we made it to the College Cup my sophomore year, and I earned a starting position by my junior year. I had an assist on my first and last games on Thompson field, and even as a defender, I scored a collegiate goal.
Five years later, I also look forward to a new dream that came to life during my time in Blacksburg, one that finally answers the question of why Blacksburg seemed so special to me when I was in high school. Yes, it is a special place. I think anyone who has ever visited Blacksburg, Virginia will tell you that there is something about it. And they can’t quite say what it is; you just have to experience it for yourself.
For me, Blacksburg is the place where my dreams have come true. Both soccer and my dream of being a sports broadcaster – neither would have been accomplished or put me on the path to accomplishing them if it wasn’t for the time I spent at Virginia Tech.
Since sixth grade I wanted to be an orthodontist. I love teeth. I had braces when I was younger and loved them. I also like working with people and loved the idea of being able to help people with their confidence through helping them with their smile.
I was a straight-A student in high school and got a C in the science major biology class, which was a required class. I would make sure I got 100’s on all my homework grades because I knew I was going to fail the tests. After making a four-year plan of the classes needed to graduate, I called my mom, believing I was having a premature quarter-life crisis and knowing I wasn’t cut out to be a science major.
Then came the real issue of having to figure out what I wanted as my major and what I wanted do with my life after soccer. I felt like a failure because all I knew was that I liked sports and working with people, but that’s just what led me to broadcasting.
My dad’s brother, also my godfather, works in an industry surrounded by professional athletes and celebrities. To this day I call New Jersey my second home due to all the time we spent visiting him as a child. Visiting him threw me into a world where all these professional athletes were around.
Through those experiences I was reminded that, at the core, they are just normal people. The time we spent around different celebrities made me comfortable interacting with them. Charles Barkley once told me and my brother he would kick our asses if we didn’t do well in school – see – normal.
After realizing how important it was to work with people and how much I l loved the sports industry, I decided sports broadcasting would be a dream career for me.
I switched my major to Multimedia Journalism, and one of my first assignments was to interview a professional in the field I wanted to work in. As a member of the athletic department, I knew people worked to cover the Tech sports’ games but didn’t know who they were or exactly what they did.
I googled “Virginia Tech sports broadcasting” and came across Bill Roth’s name. I knew the legendary name Bill Roth, Voice of the Hokies, as he had called Virginia Tech football and basketball for 27 years.
I didn’t want to seem like an inexperienced student by reaching out, even though I was, so I emailed Andrew Allegretta. Andrew is the Assistant Director of Broadcasting and voice of the baseball and women’s basketball teams.
I learned Andrew was in charge of the student broadcaster internship through IMG at Virginia Tech. When we met, he explained that they call all the Virginia Tech Olympic sports games, so his students were the ones covering my games. My interest was sparked, but it was going to be somewhat of a challenge to find my niche.
Andrew mentioned they had not had women in the internship before. He thought I would be a good addition to their soccer coverage, but more importantly, he was willing to work with me to create opportunities. I mentioned I was interested in sideline reporting and we worked together to create that position for ESPN3 games.
I started in the internship in the fall of my junior year doing color commentary for the men’s soccer games on HokiesXtra. Then Andrew was brave enough in the spring to put me on my first ESPN3 broadcast – covering Clemson vs. Virginia Tech baseball. I’m not sure why he trusted me, but it was probably because he knew I had been studying every possible sideline hit and post game interview done by Samantha Ponder that I could find.
That brings me to today; I have worked four ESPN3 games as a color commentator for men’s soccer and women’s volleyball and over 10 games on the sideline covering all different sports such as softball, baseball, women’s lacrosse, men’s soccer, and men’s and women’s basketball.
I also worked with Andrew and covered the 2015 Virginia Tech spring football game. By far one of the most surreal moments of my short career was working that game and interviewing Bud Foster on the sideline in Lane Stadium.
After my senior season as a member of the soccer team, I really focused on post-graduate opportunities. As an ACC student athlete, there are opportunities within a post-graduate internship program called ACC Futures. There are six companies that hire ACC Futures Interns.
In order to get an interview, I had to pass the application round through my school and then once again through the ACC. By the time interviews came around I was one of 16 students interviewing for six openings with companies such as the ACC, the Orange Bowl, Fox Sports South, and Fox Sports Florida.
When I met with Fox Sports Florida, I knew they were one of my top choices. The job description was something that I was extremely interested in, and once I met with one of the producers within the company, I was hooked. We had a 30-minute interview and then a 15-minute break after the fact. I went into my interview a few minutes early and ended up missing my break because I was talking with them for so long.
One week later I got a call; they offered me a position at Fox Sports Florida as a production intern. At the time of the call, I was actually in San Francisco for Super Bowl 50 weekend with my brother and godparents. To this day, that was the best weekend of my life.
My story has highs and lows, but now I look back and know exactly why I cried to my dad about wanting to go to school at Virginia Tech.
As for the future, I don’t know what it holds, but all I know is I am moving to Florida in a few months with an open mind and thankful heart, ready to enjoy the ride.
In April of my junior year of high school, I was a midfielder for my high school lacrosse team.
For our cancer awareness game, Coach Dan Kaplan informed us that a 10-year-old named Lily Anderson, who was currently battling cancer, would be singing our national anthem. Little did I know, this girl would end up making a permanent impact on my life.
After Lily sang the national anthem, she sat on the bench of our sideline throughout the game. I remember it was baking hot and the sun was beating down. I had been knocked around a couple times and when I came off the field, I was drenched in sweat and looked pretty rough.
Although I sat down next to Lily, I was intimidated to speak to her. For some reason, I assumed a little girl battling cancer would be somewhat timid or fragile…Boy was I wrong. Lily looked me right in the face and said “Holy COW you are SOO sweaty!!!!”
I busted out laughing and was completely sold from that moment on. Lily was absolutely hilarious from the get-go and said whatever was on her mind. I really appreciated this because I am the exact same way.
As our season went on, our team “adopted” Lily as an honorary teammate. We all viewed her as a baby sister and I constantly thought about how awesome it would be to see her play lacrosse one day.
Her favorite colors were lime green and bright pink so of course, our team began to wear lime green and pink in any way possible to show her our support. I remember us all putting pink and green tape on our sticks, ribbons in our hair and shoelaces in our cleats in order to be “Lily-styled.”
We loved Lily and her spunk so much and I began to think about her bravery and strength whenever I wanted to quit or give up on a ball or cheat my way in a sprint during practice. Lily motivated me to push myself further. In the winter of my senior year in high school, Lily became very sick.
By this time, she was 11 years old and our team was fully in love with her. I remember one night, Mrs. Jennifer Anderson, Lily’s mom, was gracious enough to let us come visit Lily at her house. You can imagine an entire team of high school girls crammed in a living room with Lily in the center keeping us all entertained.
I know at her age, I was petrified to even look someone in the eye. But Lily wasn’t shy at all and we hung out with this spunky little 11-year-old, who had the most contagious laugh, until it was dark out and time to go. I don’t even think it was a week later that I woke up to a message in the team’s group chat. Lily had passed away in the night.
Dread washed over me. I ran upstairs to my parents and I guess they already knew because they just grabbed me in a group hug while I cried. I remember saying over and over “This isn’t fair. This shouldn’t be happening to kids like Lily. Why do I get to be a normal teenager and Lily doesn’t?”
I remember later that day, I had an award ceremony at my high school for something irrelevant. I wore pink and green for Lily and could barely keep tears from springing up. My teammates, Marisa and Dakota, were there, and when we saw each other, we collided in a group hug and let the tears run freely.
We agreed that we were going to make the upcoming season all about playing our hearts out for Lily. By the time the season started, Coach Kaplan had decided that we would use our #11 jersey to honor Lily since she was 11 years old.
Each week, he picked someone to wear the jersey and a recording of Lily’s voice sang our national anthem before each game. I can still remember listening to it on the field and getting chills.
In addition to this, Lily’s mom and little sister, Audrey, came to all of our games. Just a side note here: Mrs. Jennifer Anderson is quite possibly the strongest and sweetest woman in the entire universe and is the best hugger EVER!
And of course, we were always all sporting some kind of lime green and pink attire. It was simply a must that we all be stylish. It’s what Lily would have wanted. Our motto for the season was “LILYSTRONG” and we strived to embody her character in the way we played.
The really amazing thing about Lily is the way she turned my team into a family. Throughout my senior season, I noticed so many changes in West Forsyth’s Women’s Lacrosse Team.
We stopped yelling at each other when frustrated. Instead, I watched my teammates pick each other up and say “It’s okay. We’ll get ‘em next time.” I heard team chants change from “Let’s Win!” to “Let’s Do It For Lily!”
I noticed myself caring less and less about the numbers on the scoreboard and more about the teammates sharing the field with me and how I’d do anything for them. Whoever said sports bring people together might be right.
At the end of the day, the scoreboard will never really matter. Sports are, after all, just a game. What really matters is playing with heart and enjoying the moment you’re in surrounded by parents, coaches, and friends that you love.
People that are truly inspirational don’t have to try to inspire people. Lily didn’t try to influence us, yet she changed our lives. We all wanted to be just like her. She was and still is our hero.
For our cancer awareness game of senior season, Coach Kaplan surprised us with PINK uniforms to wear in honor of Lily. And I’m not talkin’ our regular navy uniforms with a pink number. These things were cotton candy pink from head to toe.
We were anxious all day because the weather looked awful and it was supposed to pour. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to honor Lily in this special way. But when game time rolled around, it still hadn’t rained.
We lined up on the field and listened to Lily’s voice sing our national anthem and the strangest thing happened. A breeze swept across the field and the clouds started to drift away. It was almost as if Lily herself told Mother Nature to back off for a couple hours.
I don’t remember who we played in that game or if I even scored. Memory is a funny thing. Irrelevant details like that are forgotten. But I do know we won that game and were all so excited that we had the chance to make Lily proud.
I wondered if Lily could see us and if she was proud of us. After the game, while we were down on the field and all the parents were snapping pictures of us, one of the moms froze in her tracks and looked at us all. “You guys…” she said, “It’s the 11th day of the month.”
We looked at each other in shock. Lucky number 11. Then another person said, “Oh my gosh…We scored 11 goals in this game! Lily’s number again!” I got chills. We were stunned. One of my teammate’s jaw dropped and she screamed, “There’s ELEVEN seniors!” We were all speechless.
That was Lily saying hello to us in a way only she could and in a way only we would recognize; with the number 11. I have never been more positive that Heaven and angels are real than in that moment. And I can say with certainty that Lily Anderson is the most stylish, sparkly and sassy angel of them all.
Shortly after that game ended, the skies opened up and it poured. I remember the whole ride home being absolutely at peace and I knew Lily had held the rain off and had been there on the field with us. Right now as I type this, I have chills. I think that memory will always give me chills.
Today, as a junior at the University of Georgia, I serve on the Executive Board of Relay For Life. I have met the most amazing people and made incredible friends. I am touched daily by the stories I hear from other people affected by cancer.
All of this has stemmed from wanting to impact others the way Lily impacted me. I am such a tiny part of her story, but she will always be a big part of mine.
Lily’s family has a motto based on her personality and attitude towards things. They say, “Live a YES life like Lily did.” Mrs. Jennifer even gave our team these beautiful bracelets that are shaped like the word “YES.”
Here’s the meaning behind the motto: When life hands you a bad card, you can choose to see the worst or you can say YES to seeing the positive. Choose to say YES to all life can offer you and love every minute of it. That’s what Lily did.
Like I said, you would never know this kid had cancer. She didn’t let it keep her down. She was fun, giggly, and added sparkle wherever she went. Lily was literally personified glitter.
Most importantly, Lily was personified love. She LOVED life. And she LOVED everyone around her.
A common thing people ask you when you’re in college is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I used to think, “Graphic Designer, Artist, Marketing Director…” And these are all great goals. But those are things I want to DO. Not who I want to BE.
I’ve come to realize that when I grow up, I want to BE just like Lily Anderson: loving, happy, positive and always willing to say YES to the best things this life has to offer.
My mom’s dad is famous in our family.
He had the bluest eyes, the biggest heart, and the greatest sense of humor. Mom always swore “Oh Lyss, he would’ve just loved you. He loved feisty girls.” To her and his 7 other kids’ dismay, my grandpa lost his life to lung cancer while my mother was a senior in high school. I think about him every single day, which is probably foreign to some people considering the fact that I had never even met him.
While I’ve always struggled watching other people spend time with their grandfathers, this past weekend at church I saw a grandpa holding his little granddaughter and it helped me to finally realize that the relationship I have my grandfather is just as special although it was never concrete.
This letter is for all the things you’ve done for me, and the great impact you’ve had on my life even though your actual body was never present in it. You taught me that you can love someone regardless.
I always see the quote on Pinterest that says something along the lines of “I’m in love with cities that I’ve never been to and people that I’ve never met.” While this is something that I a.) probably would’ve reblogged on Tumblr circa freshman year of high school and b.) often now cringe at when I see it on Twitter as it’s very cliché and overused, I realize that in a very non-trendy and non-basic way it can be completely true.
I never actually met my grandpa, but I know in every connotation and definition of the word that I love him. I love stories about him. I love pictures of him. I love picturing how life would’ve been if he could’ve been around in my life.
Somehow… someway… I just know that all of these equates to actually loving the person that he was. I feel a connection to him that I know was not just made up in my own head, and I’m thankful that through picturing him I have realized that it is not crazy to know that I love him.
Your imagination does not have an age limit, and anyone who disagrees probably has a lot less fun because sometimes reality sucks. My grandpa allowed me to picture a perfect fantasy and relationship with him, and although none of it can actually happen in the physical world around me, you made me a passionate person.
Plain and simple, cancer is actually the thing that I hate most in this world. I hate that cancer took my grandpa from me, and I hate that it takes away grandpas, aunts, uncles, moms, dads, brothers and sisters every single day.
Through your loss, though, I realize that it’s important for me to try and make a difference so a little girl in the future won’t have to write an open letter like this one. I joined Relay for Life in high school, and now in college I actively try to raise money for cancer research in hopes of letting that little girl someday in the future be able to meet her grandpa instead of writing an open letter like this one.
Grandpa D, you helped me realize that I want to help change the world, and that while I can’t do it alone, I should totally try. You taught me that being who I am is totally okay.
I’m a feisty person. Sometimes to my own detriment. To my mom’s dismay during my teenage years, I’m often way out of line. I say stuff that I shouldn’t. I tell it how it is. I’m unapologetically outspoken, and this probably won’t change throughout my lifetime.
But, because of my grandpa, I know that’s okay. Mom always said that my grandpa would’ve loved me because I was feisty, and didn’t take anyone’s crap. “He loved feisty girls, you two would’ve been peas in a pod.”
Through this, I realized that my bold (and sometimes too-blunt-for-my-own-good) personality was totally okay, because it’s part of me. I only wish that I could’ve met my Grandpa because maybe somebody would finally understand my totally blunt sense of humor and maybe laugh at my jokes.
You taught me that family is the most important thing, and that they’ll never leave you. Grandpa D, I don’t know how you did it. Eight kids is a lot, and our big Italian family is one that definitely must’ve caused you some frustrations. We’re loud. We’re crazy. We eat a lot. We play lots of card games. We laugh a lot.
You raised and created a family that is incredibly strong, and through hardships has banded together.
Thank you for helping me to realize that no matter the circumstance, your family will always be true and constant. You created the most wonderful family, and I count my blessings each and every day that I became a piece of this puzzle.
Lastly, thank you for teaching me about trying to live and the legacy you leave. At the end of your life, all that really matters are the memories you made, and the lives that you touched. You’ll be known by the stories that are told about you, and you can’t personally advocate for yourself about the type of person that you were anymore.
I know that my grandpa, to be blunt (shocker, I know), kicked ass and took names just from stories that I’ve heard. I know all of these things about him, just because that is what has been told to me.
Realizing this, even at an early age I wanted to be remembered fondly when my life does come to an end. Life is so much more than the things you buy, or own, or being the most famous or popular. In the end, your legacy is all you can leave, and my Grandpa helped me to realize that my actions everyday affect exactly how I will be remembered by the people on this Earth one day. Thank you, Grandpa D, for helping me try to be the very best person I can be. …..
For all these things and more, thank you for being who you were, and who you still are. I know for certain you watched every single dance recital from a cloud up in Heaven. Heck, you may be even watching over me right now as I type this blog post in Jittery Joes (and if you are, sorry that I’m procrastinating on this history homework). I love you to Heaven and back, Grandpa D.
You’re the best grandpa I could have ever asked for, and that’s something I’m certain of.
There are some people that are put into your life that are meant to change the path of your existence forever. For me, that person was my grandmother.
Ever since I can remember, going to my grandmother’s house was always such a special treat, even though she only lived about an hour plus some change away in Toccoa, Georgia and we went to visit pretty frequently when I was a child. Toccoa is a super small town: in 2000, the population was 9,323 people. In a place like that, everything seems charming and traditional and somehow just right (and I was thinking that even when I was tiny).
She was the funniest, most thoughtful, most beautiful woman I could have ever wanted to have in my life: so when she passed away in 2014, I was absolutely devastated, and I couldn’t really come to terms with it. She had just been driving a few months prior!
My grandmother was 91 when she passed away, and now that I look back on it, I think that it was so hard for me to accept that she had died because she had been alive for so long and had so many great stories to tell and had touched so many lives that she seemed like an immortal being.
Ultimately, my grandmother passed away from cancer, and this led to my involvement with Relay for Life. My grandma was always very big on philanthropy and doing everything she could to change the world, so I joined with the mentality that she would have loved everything that Relay stood for.
My committee is only women, and they all feel like the sisters I never had. It’s amazing to think that every single one of us in that group has been touched by cancer either directly or indirectly, and that we all joined with the intent on spreading the word about standing up to cancer and helping in any way that we can to make other people’s lives that have been affected better.
I’m writing about my grandmother’s death as an important moment in my life because through a negative experience, I was able to learn about the positive ways to help people who are struggling with the illness of a loved one, regardless of if the loved one has cancer or not.
Because of my grandmother, I’ve learned that kindness and love are often both the best forms of medicine, and I hope that I am able to spread both through my involvement with Relay for Life.
I can remember the day so clearly.
I had just started 6th grade. I was worried about going to a new school with kids I hadn’t grown up with my whole life, learning how to use a locker, and trying out for sports. I didn’t think I’d be worrying about a deadly illness that alters so many lives each year, each day, each second for that matter.
My mom hadn’t been feeling well for a while, but I figured it was nothing serious, until she went to the doctor and sat me down that evening.
Stage 3 colon cancer to be exact. I am from Augusta, Georgia. It’s a large town with a small town feel, if that makes sense. Everyone knows everyone, well at least the parents do. Life was happy there. I grew up with an older sister to play with, a mom who loves me, and a dad who always tells me to be the free spirit I am. Things aren’t always happy, though.
One-day life hits you in the gut so hard you think you might never catch your breath again. For me, that was the day my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t believe her at first. Sitting in her bathroom I sat there sobbing as she broke the news. Sobbing because I was angry, because I didn’t understand why this happened to her, because it wasn’t fair. She didn’t cry when she told me. She was strong and sat there holding me. That night after I finally got my emotions under control I realized I had to be strong for her. She couldn’t do this on her own.
Stage 3 colon cancer is no joke. Things were bad. My mom was in her late 40s when she was diagnosed. Most people don’t even get a colonoscopy until they are 50. If my mom had waited that late, she wouldn’t be with me here today.
People shy away from it, don’t want to talk about it, dance around the word like actually talking about it will make it happen, but there it was staring me straight in the face. My mom’s cancer was advanced and it wasn’t the best scenario, but then again with cancer is there even a best scenario? She was going to have to go through chemo and radiation as well as an intensive surgery. And then even more chemo.
I can remember her barely being able to walk into the house because she was so exhausted from treatment, crawling into the garage because she was so fatigued. My mom didn’t give up. She was more than this sickness. She wasn’t going to let it cripple her and wither her away. She never complained or said she was tired. She was scared, terrified even, but she didn’t let it show because letting it show let the cancer win and that wasn’t happening.
I remember hearing a lot of things I didn’t understand, medical terms, all much too technical. To be honest, I didn’t really want to know what it all meant because I was scared one day someone would say she only has a year left, or a few months.
Before my mom had surgery, she went through 6 weeks of chemotherapy as well as radiation. I could see how it drained her, sucked the life out of her, but she kept on going.
Then the day of the surgery came.
I remember being at the hospital. I’ll never forget that sterile smell. It burned my nose and made me feel sick to my stomach. I sat in the waiting room with family and friends waiting…waiting for the doctors to come out and say your mom is fine, everything is ok.
That isn’t what happened.
I was supposed to be worried about boys and middle school drama but here I was worried about if I would ever hear her voice again. I couldn’t imagine not having her look in my room every night and tell me she loved me and would see me in the morning, or tell me funny stories and laugh with me. My mom’s laugh is so distinct. It’s so loud and high pitched I could always pick it out of a crowd.
As I’ve gotten older I notice more and more that I laugh like her, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. The eighth hour came and doctors walked out and said if my mom stayed under any longer she probably wouldn’t survive. We didn’t know what else to do but pray. I remember standing there with hot tears streaming down my face beside my family and friends as we stood in a circle and began to hold hands and we prayed.
Prayed for her to live.
Prayed for her not to leave us so soon.
I was so angry because I didn’t understand why God did this to her. I realized, though, that it made my mom stronger, which is hard to believe that was even possible. It made her stronger for the other events that were to happen to her later. They say rain makes trees grow deeper roots. My mom grew deeper roots in all this rain and darkness. She was still a guiding light.
She survived the surgery. I remember seeing her after it. She had so many tubes feeding into her pale, frail body. I felt sick. I hated seeing her like that but at the same time I was just happy to see her breathing. See her chest moving up and down. I can say that without her I wouldn’t be the person I am today and I probably wouldn’t be at the University of Georgia like I am now.
After my mom recovered from surgery, she had more chemotherapy. The day finally came when she finished her last treatment and she went into remission. She is now cancer free 8 years, has run multiple 5ks and a half marathon, as well as receive two promotions at work. She was strong then and still is strong now. The whole time I thought I was going to have to be strong for her because she needed me but it turned out she was strong for me and my family.
She never let the cancer stop her. She didn’t let it weigh her down because if she had it would have consumed her. I remember her telling me the statistic when was diagnosed was that 1 in 4 people get cancer. She looked at me and said “I got cancer but I hope I was the 1 out of the 4 members of our family to get it.” She would have rather her suffer than to see us suffer. I can not think of a greater amount of love and sacrifice than when she told me that.
I not only Relay for my mom, but my Granny and great-aunt Dot who survived breast cancer, my cousin Nick who is currently battling Leukemia, and my Pop who passed away from lung cancer my sophomore year of high school. It’s not just about the loved ones I know affected by cancer, though. It’s about everyone who was affected, is affected, will be affected. It’s about having hope in a better tomorrow.
My mom had hope, and so do I. I have hope that there will be a day where there is a cure. Until then I fight. I fight for loved ones lost, for those currently battling, and for those who will battle. My mom never gave up, and neither will I. She taught me strength and courage, and she continues to do so everyday. She is a force that cannot be stopped and everything I aspire to be.
So I encourage you to sign up for Relay For Life, donate to someone’s page, or participate in a local Relay For Life event near you. Together we will finish the fight.
If you would like to donate to help me meet my fundraising goal here’s the link.