Sunday, April 10, 2011

Race for Grace

Deb's oldest daughter Nikki turned 27 last week.

"I hate that I'm 27," she moaned to Deb.

And I hate it for her.  This is the year she will schedule her first mammogram.

The mother of two young sons, Nikki is completely on her own and making her own decisions.  But Deb made this one for her.  She is insistent about Nikki's first mammogram.  And when Deb makes up her mind, there's no budging her.

"I'll go with you," she promised my frightened niece.  "But you have to do this, Nik.  We can't afford to take any more chances."

I have 18 nieces who can't afford to take any chances.  My great-grandmother died of breast cancer when she was 36 years old.  In our family, three generations have been ravaged by this disease, and my sisters are determined it won't wrap its insidious fingers around a fourth.

But it's tricky.  No apparent breast cancer gene has been identified in our family.  We only know that our susceptibility is great.  So how can we determine who's safe and who's not?  My 18 nieces are all uniquely beautiful, and it pains me to think of what's ahead.  Are we a family of women destined forever to remove our breasts to prevent this disease from killing us?

It's easy to get trapped in a pocket of despair when you're trying to predict the future.  Fortunately for me, today was the Race for Grace.

Co-founded by two special friends, Lisa Willman and Julie Pfeifer, GRACE (Grand Island Area Cancer Endowment) raises hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for those in our community who are stricken by cancer.  Lisa and Julie, both breast cancer survivors, are the backbone of the foundation. 

You'd never guess the steely resolve that hides behind the beautiful smiles of my two young friends.  In spite of their youth, Lisa and Julie have fought their own dragons and won - both have reached the all important five-year benchmark.  Now they're determined to help their community.

The first annual Race for Grace started early this morning in downtown Grand Island.  More than 600 runners and walkers registered for the event, all of them commemorating their loved ones lost to cancer or fighting cancer with thousands of pink butterflies lining the route.

Deb and I volunteered to help.

"We need people to direct traffic!" coordinator Laura Dexter, our tall, joyful friend, coaxed us.

Julie and Lisa greeted and thanked us with a hug, and Deb and I saw dozens of people we knew helping with the race.  Spearheading the event were the Wenzl siblings - Angie, Kim and Leonard, all of them veteran runners whom I taught.  Dorene Spies, a human dynamo if there ever was one, was helping Laura register the scores of volunteers while her husband Michael donned an orange vest to direct traffic and her good son Dillon offered himself up as a teenage gopher.  Our school secretary Pam Fruin was there, and even our parish pastor Father Todd Philipsen volunteered to help.  They were only a few of many.  And all because of two lovely women who have made it their mission to fight cancer.

Deb and I drove to our post on a busy Blaine Street to direct traffic and encourage racers.

"How's this?" Deb joked, waving imaginary traffic through with her best Deputy Barney Fife impersonation.

But when the hundreds of runners and walkers first turned the corner and filled the street making their way to our intersection, Deb and I stared in awe.

"Thanks for volunteering!" many of them called out to us, laboring hard after reaching the four mile mark.

"High Five, Mrs. Howard!" a former student ran by, raising his hand.

To the last walker, they were inspirational, and Deb and I were choked up.  All of them were racing for a cause, especially one determined runner - Kim Willman, Lisa's husband.

Biking behind the very last walker, Terry Pfeifer, Julie's husband, made sure every walker and runner made it safely to the finish line.  "Thank you, Ladies!" he smiled warmly.

It's impossible to give into despair when you witness 600 runners and almost as many volunteers uniting for a common cause.  They fill me with hope.  The Race for Grace helps me to believe any thing is possible. Even a cure.

Lisa Willman and Julie Pfeifer are fighting for a community.  But they're also fighting for their daughters.  Lisa's doing every thing in her power to protect Daryn, Kamryn and Lauryn, and Julie's fighting for Lyndie and Natalie.  Their courage speaks to all of us - husbands, children and friends.  If they can believe and battle so hard for an end to cancer, so can we.

This year, my niece Nikki will have her first mammogram.  Deb will be by her side.  Nikki doesn't yet realize what a blessing it is to have her strong mother accompanying her to her first mammogram. But my sisters and I know.  Mom couldn't be with us.

So we're making progress.  And one day, perhaps each of my 18 beautiful nieces will make a life-changing appointment to visit her doctor's office for a breast cancer vaccination that will protect her for the rest of her life.

This spring, there are a million little communities all over the world running their own races - for their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and kids.

Someday, we'll find the cure.  We'll find it because of people like my good friends Lisa Willman and Julie Pfeifer, two young women who inspire a small community to do great things.