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What Cancer Takes From Us, What We Can Take From Cancer

January 25, 2012

Gail Richman is Managing Director of Business Practices at the National Home Office, and has been working at the American Cancer Society since 2000.

Cancer is a taker. It can take away loved ones, limbs, money, hair, and other things that make us who we are. But I learned when I lost my mother, now more than 20 years ago, that cancer can also be a giver. It can give you courage, strength, friends. And I learned over the past few weeks that with enough support, cancer can propel you to the top of a mountain.

Just a few weeks ago I was honored to be a member of an expedition to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which was comprised of cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers, and led by longtime ACS volunteer Dr. Richard Deming. Having seen first-hand the experience of cancer patients while in treatment – whether during hospital stays or living with the sometimes relentless side effects of chemotherapy, surgery or radiation – I am in no position to compare the nine-day journey to the arduous task of responding to a cancer diagnosis. Yet, I cannot help but think that the depth of strength it took for some of my fellow climbers to dig in for another step was made possible by the test they had already been through.

As one of the survivors put it as we made our way to the top of Kilimanjaro, “I’m not a ‘survivor.’ That’s too passive. I’m a conqueror!”

I’ve been back in the warmth of my home, family life, and work life for a week since the Kilimanjaro trek. It was easy to fall back into the rhythm of daily life where I take for granted the ability to take a shower, change clothing, find fresh fruits and vegetables, and have access to safe drinking water. But lingering from the trip is the indelible impression of trust and caring and the kind of ‘survivorship’ that is manifested when we are far away from our established routines and creature comforts.

Just as each person in the group found the strength and encouragement to take a trip across the globe and climb the highest peak in Africa, every one of us was once where so many American Cancer Society volunteers and constituents are today: facing a daunting disease or anticipating difficult side effects from treatment, or caring for a loved one in those circumstances, and needing strength from wherever they can find it.

Not every person whose life is interrupted by cancer will ultimately climb a mountain, but it’s a comfort to me to know that so many will have the chance to try.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Teresa permalink
    January 27, 2012 11:21 am

    Well said, the strength of the conquerors is example of the boundless potential humans possess. This trek has already produced amazing examples of advocacy off the mountain. Congratulaions to The American Cancer Society and Above and Beyond Cancer on a job well done!

  2. Tammy Blaede permalink
    January 27, 2012 12:04 pm

    Gail…thanks so much for sharing. I know I never would have even thought of trying this trek had I not been through cancer & treatment. There is life above and beyond cancer and I look forward to the opportunities to share our stories and do what it takes to reduce the burden of cancer. I’m all for more birthdays!!! 🙂 -Tammy

  3. Timothy J. Meyer permalink
    January 27, 2012 12:52 pm


    Thank you for your beautiful words in describing our journey in Africa. It was great to have you there with us sharing in the same joys and discomforts that we all experienced. Thank
    you for your constant encouragment and support. We were blessed to have one another to
    rely on when the going got rough. Now it’s onward and upward to save more lives and yes,
    have more Birthdays! I look forward to tasks ahead in making that all happen. We all pleged
    to save at least one life this year…now let’s get going.
    Tim Meyer

  4. steven rebelsky permalink
    January 27, 2012 1:56 pm

    I was touched deeply by your story. My emotions came bubbling up like a stream that was trying to find a way out of the mountain. What a great feeling that was as the memories came bursting,out of my climb and all the other people that made the climb with me,that kept encouraging me to take another step. It has shown me and i hope others to never give up the fight for ourselves and for every one that has been touched by cancer. To go Above and Beyound Cancer to climb to the top of our own mountain to see what beauty thier is in all of us. To help in any way we can to see many more Birthdays to come.

  5. Beverly Lund permalink
    January 29, 2012 2:12 pm

    Gail, no words can express the feelings and emotions that welled back up in me while reading your entry. Yes, this was a challenge of a life time, i think harder than my cancer
    diagnosis, surgeries, treatment. The friends i made and the trust i learned to give and receive was and is uncontitional. Thank you so much for being part of our team and supporting all of us.
    Here’s to all “never give up the fight”, survive and conquer. Heres to MANY MORE BIRTHDAYS!!!!!

  6. Jeff and Madonna Nichols permalink
    January 30, 2012 11:32 am

    Hello Gail,
    Great to hear from you! As I supported Madonna through 9 months of chemo,surgery,and radiation she inspired me daily with her grace and determination.I was not surprised that she would make it to the top and make it look effortless.I was inspired anew by people I had just met and did not know well,reach deep down and find strength that they did not know they had.Thanks to you and ACS for providing this wonderful opportunity to all the cancer survivers. Hope to see you this summer. Sincerely, Jeff

  7. Dixie Wedding permalink
    January 31, 2012 9:17 am

    Gail – amazing story an journey for an amazing person. Thank you for the write-up.

  8. January 31, 2012 9:20 am

    Gail – amazing story and journey for an amazing person. Thank you for posting.

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