By Jessica “JP” Protasio
I recently participated in the Howard County Striders Women’s Distance Festival. In fact, I finished in last place. I felt a mixture of embarrassment and relief. I was still able to jog across the finish line and I wasn’t alone. There were 300+ runners and their families waiting, cheering, and clapping. It’s so rewarding and validating when your journey is acknowledged.
My friend’s mother just lost her battle with cancer. Now, we celebrate the beautiful person she was despite such an ugly disease. My father passed just six weeks after his diagnosis, and he resides in my heart. It’s no exaggeration that friends and families in our community are fighting cancer and doing their best to manage the effects of treatment: daily, braving the seemingly menial tasks of eating, sleeping, using the restroom independently, and just being upright. Cancer is nasty, uncaring, and indiscriminate.
We can hate the disease, embrace the survivor, and laugh at the most ridiculous situations and moments of frustration that cancer brings with it. Late comedian, Robert Schimmel, published a memoir about his diagnosis with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was the first book I read after my diagnosis, and it really felt good to laugh about cancer. Often, we’re swept up in the heaviness of this disease, and rightfully so. However, I’m also a believer in the power of a good, hearty laugh. Gail Konop Baker’s book has given me a good guffaw or two, when I’ve been brought to tears. I was impressed with her honesty about how breast cancer changed every aspect of her life. I know that my perspective and priorities have shifted considerably.
One month after my liver transplant, I received a letter from the sister of the woman whose liver now keeps me alive. I still don’t know her name or exactly how she passed, but I do know that she was around my age and that her stewardship of her body resulted in changing the lives of many people on March 13, 2011. Her decision to be an organ donor saved my life.
Our lives merged in a way that’s difficult to explain. I feel the only way I can properly thank her is to live a strong and healthy life. That’s why I’ve been training and taking on various races each month. It’s one way I can commemorate and measure the progress of this journey. Some of the events I’ll be participating in over the next few months include 24 Hours of Booty, the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in California, and the Baltimore Running Festival. And thanks to Columbia Triathlon Association founder and director, Robert “Vigo” Vigorito, I’ll be participating in Iron Girl 2012. I am so grateful for the chance to live that I’m not going to put off these things I’ve always wanted to do because I’ve never been considered an athlete.
Cancer is not easily overcome. It takes a toll on you physically, financially, and emotionally. It’s a marathon of doctors, treatment, surgery, testing; a roller-coaster of being well and sick; and a race that we sometimes don’t get to finish. But, when we do get to cross the finish line, it’s amazing! Think of it as your last day of chemotherapy, when you get to ring that bell in the hall. Imagine the immense joy of a woman who thought she’d never have children due to her cancer treatment, but finds herself holding her first child. The journey is important and deserves to be remembered and acknowledged. That’s why I don’t care if I come in last place because I know I have birthday just around the corner.