It was the summer of 2000. I had just closed the book on my junior year of college and the new millennium looked bright; I had big plans to fly to London to do an internship with one of my best friends. As a side-note to this summer of possibility, my mother Nanci was experiencing severe constipation and back pain. She joked about the mineral oil -- and a dozen other remedies -- the doctor suggested to get her system moving. I didn't know that she was having other symptoms like bleeding. None of us knew that these symptoms added up to ovarian cancer and that it would take her life.
Mom had already defeated Stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma; they gave her six weeks at diagnosis. Another cancer was inconceivable. Mom and Dad shooed me off to London and assured me that everything would be fine. My gut said it wasn't, but I got on the plane. Only a couple weeks passed before I got the call. The memory is etched: me, standing, facing the front porch of our London flat. The phone on the small circular table. My parents' voices when they told me what it was. The helpless tears because I was too far away at a too-scary time.
Mom's oncologist for Hodgkin's recommended Dr. Beth Y. Karlan at the Women's Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute to do the surgery and assured us she was the best of the best. She was. With the exemplary Dr. Karlan beside her, for the next eight years my mom battled ovarian cancer like a true warrior. She even said this cancer had been kind to her because of the compassionate and extraordinary treatment she received from Dr. Karlan and the amazing Cedars-Sinai team. Thanks to her phenomenal level of care, Mom even had a year here and there without having to do any treatment. She visited Switzerland with friends, traveled to Las Vegas and Hawaii. She had always lived life to the fullest and she wasn't going to let ovarian cancer stop her.
My mom's strength was an inspiration that would fuel the proudest accomplishment of my life. In 2002, I began my schooling to get a Master's Degree in Sport Management. For my thesis, I decided to create a marketing and operations plan for a 5k run/walk to raise funds to fight ovarian cancer. As a runner, I had participated in plenty of fundraising runs and had seen first-hand how effective they are in raising both money and awareness for a cause. I knew ovarian cancer urgently needed public attention. It's the deadliest women's cancer, but there is no reliable test for the disease. The symptoms mimic those of other common conditions so they are missed both by women and their doctors. My mom's dream became spreading life-saving awareness of ovarian cancer to as many people as possible. It was my dream too.
When I graduated, it was time to make the dream a reality and put my academic thesis into action. There was no question where the money should go. I pitched the concept to Vice President of Community Relations at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. It was a long shot because Cedars-Sinai had never done a public event before. To our grateful surprise, however, they agreed to partner up!
Eight years later, the run for her® run/walk has raised over $4 million for the Women's Cancer Program and the pioneering work of Dr. Karlan. The best part is, my mom got to watch it happen. She was the spokesperson for run for her® for the first three years and crossed the finish line every time. The inaugural run was in 2005. We were walking out of our hotel room together when we saw that La Cienega Boulevard -- usually a congested Los Angeles artery -- was empty, shut down with blockades and cones marking our route. I looked at my mom and said "Oh, my gosh, this is because of us!" She said, "Yes, Kel, it is." It was real. We held hands and walked to the starting line.
In time, Mom began to experience dizziness, difficulty walking and writing, slurred speech and headaches. Her cancer had spread to her brain. She went through a couple months of radiation and kept a smile -- and her make-up! -- on the whole time. Somehow she always made us feel like everything was OK in the face of this decidedly not-OK disease.
Mom would be alive today if we had known the signs of ovarian cancer or if there were a reliable test. Any death is such a loss, and feeling that it could have been prevented makes missing Mom all the more poignant. Run for her® exists to try to fill that gap. And beyond the vital funds for research and raising awareness, we provide an outlet for people to share their experiences, cry, laugh and be healthy all at the same time. I have met extraordinary people who have showed me incredible courage, love, and hope beyond comprehension.
We wanted to expand run for her® to embrace people across the country and beyond, so five years ago we launched a program now called Sleepwalkers Around the World™. For the past few years, we have had a Sleepwalker registered in every state and several countries. We encourage them to do their own run for her® walk locally with their friends and family, so they can experience the camaraderie of a life-affirming event.
Mom would always say, "feel me in your heart pocket." She said it to anyone close to her who needed some of her extra special love and comfort when she couldn't be present. I feel blessed that each and every day I feel her in my heart pocket, and I get to share that feeling with the thousands of members of the run for her® family.
For more information on the 8th annual run for her®, please go to: www.runforher.com
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