Relay for Life Keynote Speech—Charlottesville, VA

Hello, my name is Jen, and I am the designated ‘survivor’ to speak today. However, I don’t feel that I can be called that; I don’t even call myself a survivor.I winced when I received a button that said “Cancer survivor one year” at a recent brunch held at the cancer center. Cancer is hard enough for me to verbalize.You’d think survivor should come easy—that one would welcome it.But it’s too powerful of a word for me.It means that I would be fully acknowledging that this past year and a half, I have been looking my mortality in the face.It’s still too fresh, and still too soon.The word survivor to me used to only mean the reality TV show when people tried to see how long they could “survive” on an island.What a mockery of the word!For I have the utmost respect for people who have been diagnosed, gone through treatments, and understand what an incredible achievement they have made and are proud to call themselves survivors.The fact that they are here today, supporting other people, raising money for this cause—which I think has already raised 200,000—and are about to take a lap around this track is amazing.And it’s clear to me that THOSE people on the TV show hold no candle to the members of this privileged community of true survivors here today.

I was 20 years old when I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November 2002.It was my third year at the university and I was in the best physical shape of my life—running 2-3 miles a day and biking for a half hour, lifting weights four times a week; I’d never smoked anything, no drugs, you get the idea… Long story short, after being sent home numerous times for migraine headaches, a CT scan revealed a tumor in my right frontal lobe.Dr. Laws performed a biopsy the next day and I spent a week in UVA hospital.I told my story to about 60some residents, tried my best at first to look pretty when young doctors and friends came in—which is hard considering the gowns aren’t very flattering, and I soon learned that on that famous 1-10 pain scale, a 5= vicodin and 6 meant morphine or better.

Three weeks later—after waiting forever—I learned I would start thirty treatments of a new kind of brain radiation while taking chemo every day.After radiation I would start a regular chemo cycle (5 days on, 23 days off) for about a year.One of the neuro-psychologists told me to forget about the spring semester and that during my radiation I’d probably be too tired to do anything else.It was fate that one of the nurses gave me a book of lyrics from a songwriter we all know.I turned to the second page and read that he had too asked “Why me?” but then I learned a lesson from him, and that I too needed a better question, “What now?”

I moved into my aunt an uncle’s house—who happened to live right off of Barracks Road—and received incredible support from my family and church family. It was an emotional roller-coaster between the physical pain and discomfort, feeling blessed to have such a loving family, distraught and scared when losing my hair, feeling guilty for being mad since I was still alive, hurt by friends who ignored me, and mostly still trying to believe/understand what was actually happening.

I decided to enroll in a class that spring to spite my neuro-psychologist—whom I hope is not here today- and I lived with my aunt until I had another brain surgery.For seven hours Dr. Laws operated on me and I left the hospital within 48 hours of the operation, exhausted, with 39 staples in my head.I think my parents would have liked me to stay just another day, as such a speedy recovery wasn’t really heard about.This time, I was ready!My toenails were nicely painted for the hot anesthesiologist who I hit on before going under the last time (I hope he IS here…) and I attribute the rest of my recovery to an incredible surgeon, lots of prayers, and a positive attitude.Besides, I had a midterm the next week and didn’t want to have to make it up.

I eventually moved back into my sorority house and lay low the rest of the year.Throughout the whole time my best friends had been incredibly supportive and I received wonderful care form the cancer center at UVA.Yet, I was disappointed in several friends who didn’t know how to act around me--you can look for my “HOW TO” book in Barnes and Noble shortly…

Since then, it has been chemo, blood labs, scans, anxiety, waiting, and MRI’s.I cannot imagine what it would be like if my circumstances were different.There’s no way I would be here speaking to you, as a graduate from UVA, or as a girl with a smile on her face, had it not been for my family, and the inspiring people I have met.Had I not been diagnosed, David Bailey, Linda Bunker, Sharon Petro, Jeffrey Centini, Susan Goins-Eplee, and the rest of the staff at the cancer center might be unknown to me—what a loss that would have been.

I developed a sense of what matters and that I actually can make a difference, in not just my life and those around me, but in others too.After being inspired by Lance Armstrong’s book and then reading a quote by David,

“Every breath you take and every thought inside your head

Is a crystal clear decree that God believes in you,

And as long as you are here, he’s got more for you to do”

I organized a benefit concert this fall with my friends where David performed, hoping to raise $10,000 and ending up with $30,000.I’ve learned the importance of helping others and doing what we ‘need to do so long as we are here’ to use David’s words —a perfect example: what we are doing today. This—along with laughter, which has been shown releases healing endorphins—and always trying to do my best has been the combination that has worked for me personally.

However, the best way to explain what cancer has done in my life, and perhaps yours, is when I think about these questions:

How much do we cherish each relationship in our lives right now? Each smile, sunset, flower? Embracing our family members, our friends and our faith? And most importantly, embracing and cherishing each new day.