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The Meaning in a Cancer Survivor's Yellow Shirt: Working to Prevent the Next Story of Despair

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At the annual 5Kwalks held by the Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) - known as Lymphomathons, which are held throughout the year in 18 chapter locations across the country -survivors are signified by their yellow shirts. I am among the yellow shirts as a sixteen-year survivor of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I was diagnosed at the age of twenty-nine, at which time I was one of those who did not know what lymphoma was (it is the most common blood cancer, affecting more than 600,000 Americans) until the day I came back from lunch to a call from my internist with the results of that morning's "routine" CT scan and instructions to see an oncologist and a thoracic surgeon to biopsy the mass in my chest. After two anxious weeks of waiting for a second opinion on the pathology to determine the precise type of lymphoma (there are more than 70 different types), I underwent eight cycles of chemotherapy and twenty-something radiation treatments, which put me in remission.

For about the past six years, I have volunteered with the Lymphoma Research Foundation - which is the nation's largest nonprofit organization devoted to lymphoma - including tenures as New York City Chapter President and Advocacy Chair of the New York City and Long Island Chapters, and currently as an LRF Ambassador. As Chapter President for five years, I had the honor of presenting welcoming remarks to the Greater New York Lymphomathon participants and each year saw the number of yellow shirts increase. By this increase in yellow shirts, we can see that our work has positively impacted the mission of the Foundation, which is to eradicate lymphoma and serve those touched by the disease. Indeed, since its inception in 2001, LRF has awarded more than $55 million in vital research that has led to many advances in treating the disease, and in 2012, the Foundation served more than 50,000 people through its educational programming and patient services.

In our yellow survivor's shirts, we find a number of meanings for each of the several constituencies we as a Foundation represent and serve: for our survivors, the joy of cancer survivorship, being alive and celebrating the survivorship of others who have defeated the disease; for our current patients, the hope of successful treatment and to wear a yellow shirt the following year; and for our caregivers, the gratitude that we owe to them for the perhaps more difficult burden they bear, because unlike the patient, they are not afforded the right to have a lousy day.

Yet, a fourth group is also represented at the Lymphomathons, those we have lost to the disease. They are not there to don the yellow shirts, we can only remember, honor and celebrate their lives with their loved ones who have come to us from the despair of their loss. For this group, the meaning of the yellow shirts lies in our continuing efforts to find a cure for this disease and impact the lymphoma community. As survivors, in exchange for our own personal stories of joy, we are obligated to work to prevent the next story of despair.

So, my LRF colleagues and friends come back to the Lymphomathons each year, and will keep coming back until we see only yellow shirts; and we will continue to visit legislators for funding and vital cancer legislation; and we will continue to serve as FDA Patient Representatives; and we will continue to respond when a newly diagnosed patient emails or calls, so that they will hear from a survivor on the other end of the line. We will continue working toward our shared mission to eradicate the disease and serve those touched by it, because that is what we owe as survivors. We hope that we will make an impact, and we hope that some (or many) of you will join us at the next Lymphomathon near you and take a step toward a cure.

This is what these yellow shirts mean.