Wednesday, November 19, 2014

LESS CANCER MORE WAHOOS



Think back to the day that you received your acceptance letter to Mr. Jefferson’s University. Do you remember the way you felt? If you were anything like me you were completely beside yourself, screaming with excitement. Can you remember the first person you called? I do. I called my Papaw Virgil, otherwise known as Paps. You see Paps wore the honor of honors many years ago, and I can remember sitting and listening to all of these fascinating stories and hoping that I too one day could be a Wahoo. When the day finally came, my fingers couldn’t dial fast enough. I can remember the way he answered the phone in confusion as to why I would be screaming so loudly and asking me to slow down. When I was finally able calm down and utter the words I could hear the excitement and pride in his voice as he congratulated me. I knew right then that I would never forget that day.



 My Paps was an incredible man. He grew up 1 of 15 children in the coal mines of Wise Virginia and worked to pay his way through college. He was one of the most intelligent men I have ever met. He had the perfect ratio of wittiness and friendliness; he always made it a goal to get to know each and every person he came in contact with.  He also had the ambition we are all taught to admire - never settling for anything less than what he has set his mind to. And because of this hard-work, he was very successful.



All who knew him loved him. You can see why I would look up to someone like this and aspire to follow in his footsteps. He always knew exactly what to say and offered constant words of encouragement throughout my first year. I can remember failing one of my first tests as a student here and being completely devastated. Calling him tear-stricken and discouraged, Paps reminded me that life is so much more than a test grade.  It is merely a number and did not define me. He reminded me that it is okay to not know what I want in life and to change your mind every other day because everything finds a way to work in the end; we just have to follow along the course of life.  I looked forward to my visits home so I could talk with him about all the exciting things happening around Grounds, my favorite classes here at the University, and simply how much I loved being a Wahoo. He would listen intently and pepper me with curious questions then enlighten me with his own stories about his time at here at Mr. Jefferson’s University. One of my favorites and perhaps one of the most interesting ones is how he hitchhiked his way all the way from Charlottesville to Wise. Or how he had to apply for a credit card when he got here – specifically so he could buy new suits. I quickly realized how blessed I was to have such an incredible person to learn from and share these experiences with


However, in July I lost my sweet Paps to cancer.

On July 10th of this year, after being hospitalized with what we thought had been persistent pneumonia, he was called into the doctor's office to receive the shocking news. He had stage IV lung cancer that had progressed too far. They were not sure there was much more they could do. My whole family entered a state of shock. It just couldn't be possible; Paps was a relatively healthy man for his age. How could he have cancer? It had to be some mistake. 

After the initial shock wore off, Paps acted as if nothing had happened. He stayed his old fun, loving self until eventually the cancer ate away at his body. Day by day, he became sicker and sicker. He was hospitalized one final time before deciding to come home to finish his fight. In the time we had left with Paps we all stayed with him day in and day out. We wanted to relish the bittersweet, precious time we had left with him and learn every last thing he was willing to offer.



Paps lost his battle on July 30th, only 20 days after being diagnosed. 20 days is not a significant amount of time; in 480 precious house and less than 3 weeks, the disease overcame his body. Cancer has no remorse, and cancer works quickly.

Cancer took my fellow Wahoo. I now no longer have my Paps to swap stories with or complain to about our football team. It still isn't easy to not have him around for those constant words of encouragement or endless life lessons, but is it ever easy to lose a loved one? I relay because I think it is important to remember those who have lost their battle and honor those who are still fighting. i relay because it is rewarding to know you have made an impact in helping to change the outcome for those who will be diagnosed in the future. I relay for a world with more Wahoos and less cancer.

With RelayLove, 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A ROLLER COASTER OF UNCERTAINTY

So quick question? Can you run 13.1 miles? Or better yet, would you want to run 13.1 miles? Well, this Saturday I will find out if I can. This past July I made the decision to participate in the Richmond Half-Marathon.  However, this is more than just an opportunity to challenge myself physically; it is a way to fight cancer.

Let me explain. Family and the Wnorowski name go together like Oreos and milk. They are interdependent upon each other.  My dad has two brothers and a sister, and each of them has three children.  As long as I can remember, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my mother, father, brother, sister, dog, and me pile into our car in the wee hours of the morning with plenty of blankets, pillows, and snacks and begin the trek North.  Every Thanksgiving, the Wnorowski family tradition is to alternate between celebrating the holiday in Pittsburgh and Syracuse, the hometowns of two of my dad’s brothers.  This has never been a small shin-dig.  There are brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousin, grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, and dogs, of course.  The tradition always includes the Macy’s Day Parade, Black Friday Shopping, lots of fantastic food, and, the most important to all of us, endless games of pinochle. 

Within the past 6 years or so, we added on a new tradition for when we celebrate in Syracuse: a Turkey Trot 5-8k.  Syracuse is the hometown of the oldest of the siblings: my Uncle Dan. Always big into physical activity, particularly running, he, my other uncle, brother, and a few other cousins start the morning out strong with a little cardio and great family bonding.  I have always seen bits of Uncle Dan in myself as I have grown as a person.  Working as an orthopedic doctor, we share an interest in medicine – both working to find joy by serving others.  Also, a love for running is something that has driven us closer together over the past years.  If I can ever see his drive, motivation, and caring nature in myself, I will know I have become a person I truly aspire to be.  He is the person that doesn’t believe in the word “can’t”.  To date, he has run in total at least 30 half-marathons, full marathons, triathlons, and can officially call himself an IronMan, which he completed for the second time July 27th (just for the record that means swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles).  His character brings inspiration to those around him.



So that was what Thanksgiving always was for me.  A time spent with family to enjoy laughter, warmth, love, and smiles.   It never occurred to me that things could change. 

However, in June of 2011, life took an unexpected route.  One evening, during dinner, my parents explained to my little brother, sister, and I that Uncle Dan had been diagnosed with lymphoma.  At the age of 16, I knew what cancer was; I was aware of how terrible it could be and what it had to potential to do, but it was never anything that could actually affect my own life. Right? I had tearfully watched as it affected other families – but not mine.  Or one of those news articles that you see on CNN.  It was a tragedy but not something that could happen to us – everything was too perfect. Yet, information and updates continued to come.  The first mountain to climb was the type of cancer.  Lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph nodes, is normally restricted to one of two types: Hodgkins or non-Hodgkins.  However, there are rare cases when both types are present and require not one, but two types of chemotherapy.  That summer was filled with e-mails regarding medical diagnosis, prognosis, and explanations.  At the end of each and every e-mail, even the most dismal, Uncle Dan never failed to end with an inspiring quote – staying true to his optimistic and strong personality.  The cancer also never stopped his running; if anything, it motivated him more.   He ran a total of 11 races in the course of his chemotherapy during that summer and fall – never slowing down, taking each “one step at a time.”

 In October of that year, we finally received the e-mail we had all been hoping and praying for – after several PET scans, no lymphoma was found.  The e-mail closed with, “The greatest reward for the climb to the summit is simply the view from the top.” We had finally reached the top of that mountain and could now see the view of the future – the comfort-zone of happy, healthy days spent with family.  Thanksgiving that year was extra sweet; it was my first time seeing him after he had started chemo.  And that is when it truly hit.  Still experiencing the side effects after a very aggressive chemo regime, he looked tired, but a smile remained across his face.  We had done it. 


However, as one e-mail said, “‘An emotional ride on the roller coaster of uncertainty.’ Such is life.”

In August of 2013, I began my first year at UVA.  That same month, actually the same weekend as move-in, my oldest cousin, Amelia, who is Uncle Dan’s daughter, was married.  Because I was unable to attend, I felt obligated to spend the first three weeks of classes, sufficiently Facebook stalking every wedding photo I could find.  My personal favorite was one of Uncle Dan and Amelia hugging.  It captured the personality and love both of them felt towards each other as well as everyone else around them.



Two months later, I was sitting in the quiet area of Clark Library when I noticed a new e-mail from my dad. The subject put the world on pause: “Fw: Recurrent Lymphoma”.  As I read, the anxiety and frustration with homework assignments, studying, and other petty problems fled from my mind.  The only thing I remember thinking over and over again was “Call dad. Get your phone and call dad.” I felt the tears welling-up in my eyes as I rushed from the library to the steps on the side of Clark.  I sat on the side underneath the tree and made the phone call.  By the time my dad answered, I couldn’t talk.  The reality had hit followed by a flood of tears.  I asked – no- I demanded to know why and how this could happen.  He had been doing so well – the running, the half-IronMan, the wedding.  It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t have come back.  But it did.  Recurrent lymphoma in the small bowel.  So plain and simply written, yet life-shattering. In that moment, I felt helpless.  Here was one of the strongest, smartest, most physically fit, nicest people in my life losing a battle with cancer. I felt so alone, so disconnected from my family; 3 hours from my parents; 10 hours from Uncle Dan.  That’s when what I thought was the power of cancer hit – it has no respect for family, for distance, for strength, for anything.  In my mind, the strongest person I knew was facing a time limit. My thanksgivings were now on a count down.

That November, the week before Thanksgiving, I received another e-mail.  One more Thanksgiving stolen by cancer. Biopsies performed at the Cleveland Clinic had come back as adenocarcinoma of the jejunum – not only had the cancer returned, but this time it was a rare form that was less understood and had been caught in a later stage.  It had been decided he would have surgery the day before Thanksgiving for resection.  My dad and his brother flew to the hospital to be there for the surgery along with his wife, children, and parents. Instead of spending Thanksgiving with family and food, we spent the majority of it in prayer and waiting.  Finally, the phone call came with the news that the surgery had been completed, he was awake, and now all we could do was wait.  Looking at the previous e-mails, one quote stuck out: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.  The mind is everything. What we think, we become.” From that, my mother, brother, sister, and I enjoyed our small Thanksgiving. Instead, we decided to be thankful for the things it made us appreciate a little bit more - each other, our extended family, Uncle Dan, and each passing day we were able to spend together.  Focusing on the negativity of cancer would allow it to win.

Through the next six months, we went through the motions.  All hoping, waiting, and praying for the good news.  Then, on Friday July 18th we got the e-mail. He had done it. Again. And 9 days later he became officially the IronMan we all knew he already was.

    

Now, four months later, we are still in the clear.  We all are aware of the possibility of it returning.  But if we focused on the negative, cancer would win.  Instead, we have won.  Now we enjoy every moment a little bit more – knowing how sweet and precious each one is.  That is why this Saturday I will run my first half-marathon.  I run in honor of the strongest person I know – who beat cancer, not once but twice. Who, instead of feeling pity and worry for himself, turned into a stronger individual and pushed himself physically, mentally, and emotionally.  I run to prove to myself and those around me that we are stronger than we think.  I run to prove to cancer that we are stronger that it thinks; that it cannot set a limit on how many Thanksgiving we can celebrate together. We will win.  We already have won by refusing to give it to its rules and limits.

That’s why I Relay – for the true IronMan in my life –both on the inside and out.


With RelayLove,

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