Tuesday, July 22, 2008

National Cancer Survivors Day with Women Conquering Cancer

June 1, 2008
I celebrated the four year anniversary of my bone marrow transplant on June 1, which was also National Cancer Survivors Day. I had no clue that June 1 was National Cancer Survivors Day when I had my bone marrow transplant on June 1, 2004. This year I spent June 1 representing the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in Brooklyn, New York, at a cancer survivor event sponsored by Women Conquering Cancer.

Per the event brochure, Women Conquering Cancer was founded by Sister Khaleelah Shabazz, who is also a cancer survivor, in 2005 under the name “Sisters Coping with Cancer.” On January 17, 2007, they were granted not-for-profit status and changed their name to what it is today. Most of the group’s members are of African-Caribbean American descent and are Muslims, Christians, and people of other faiths. Khaleelah Shabazz was the chair of the event and the woman to whom I reported.

I arrived at Akbar Hall in Brooklyn around noon, and Khaleelah directed me to the table assigned to the LLS. I began arranging brochures and booklets that the LLS had sent in advance on the large, round, wooden table. I discovered upon my arrival that I was to be a speaker as well. The woman from the American Cancer Society had canceled, so a replacement was needed. I was thrilled, but because I’d been given no advanced notice, I had to organize the table quickly, then sit down and compile notes for my brief overview of the LLS, its services, and my work as a volunteer.

As I began writing, a six-year old girl named Saidah approached my table and discovered a stack of activity books for children (provided by the LLS) and asked if she could have one. I told her she absolutely could. She then asked if I had some crayons. I did not but I gave her a pencil, which seemed to suffice. After that she returned to my table frequently, and we ended up playing together a bit. She had found a red balloon and was having fun blowing it up, and then we’d take turns releasing the air onto each other. She found this very amusing, and I thought she was quite adorable.

Between moments of interacting with this darling but precocious child, I worked on my notes. Being my four year anniversary of bone marrow transplant, I decided to share that milestone after my greeting, and then relay information to the audience about the LLS, its history, mission, services, and programs. After my speech, I garnered positive responses from several members of the audience, and I believe they appreciated knowing that I too was a cancer survivor because it connected us. It is truly fulfilling to know you’ve touched people’s lives or helped them in some way, and I didn’t even share my story – only a tiny portion of it: the BMT anniversary.

Because the majority of attendees were Muslim, prayers and greetings were given in Arabic, yet they were mindful and inclusive of those of us from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. At the end of the day, Shaikh Abdu Rashid led the Hour Father after saying an Islamic prayer.

After the event, I spoke with Sharif, an ex-police officer, who shared with me his experience working at ground Zero after September 11. It must have absolutely horrific. What I saw on my television in Cincinnati was a highly sanitized version of events. Sharif saw the blood and gore up close, on the front lines. We talked about tragic events being life-changing moments, and he thanked me for being involved in their cancer survivor day celebration.

Somehow our conversation turned to the topic of peace and acceptance in our world, and I told him that I believe we all want the same things: that we and our families are happy, healthy, and safe, and that our world sustains us. I believe we need to focus on the similarities of our goals, as opposed to the differences. I’ve said repeatedly that it is people’s focus on their differences that divide us and prevent us from confronting tough issues, thus further engendering feelings of separateness. In order to be able to see each other as equals, with similar desires, this separateness must be eliminated, otherwise, the perception of “otherness” remains and finding common ground, or compromise, is nearly impossible.

I have a handful of black and Hispanic friends, but the majority of my close relationships are within my own race. At the NFL, I work with people from all ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, which is one of the positives of being employed there. I try to take advantage of the diversity to learn more about others and their backgrounds.

Participating in the Women Conquering Cancer event forced me out of my comfort zone because I was one of two Caucasians in attendance. This was an opportunity to place myself in a situation where I was not surrounded by people with the same racial, ethnic, or religious affiliation, and it was eye-opening; yet, it was a bit uncomfortable, too, when a council member began speaking about politics and his support of Barack Obama and then disparaging Hillary Clinton.

As a Clinton supporter, I was a bit offended, and I felt this type of proselytizing was inappropriate at this event, which should have focused on cancer survivors, maintained a highly positive and inspirational tone, and disseminated information relative to cancer, cancer prevention, and cancer survival. I feel this event should only have been politicized to the extent that it was relevant to the cancer survivor’s experience and the raising of capital and the passage of legislation for research to find cures for cancer. But obviously, the councilman felt the conveyance of his message was important to this particular audience, so I sat there and restrained myself from reacting to rhetoric with which I disagreed. However, I was open-minded enough to listen and to even agree with some of what he said.

The community was very warm and welcoming toward me. I hope, and would be honored, to have the opportunity to speak at some of Women Conquering Cancer’s Health Forums, which begin in the fall. I think it is important to reach across cultures and religions in order to recognize and embrace each other’s humanity. We’re less likely to harm those with whom we identify, but rather, show compassion. It is when we do not identify with or understand others that people are objectified, viewed as second-class citizens, or worse, seen as less than human, and then atrocities can occur: bombings, genocide, torture, and all sorts of other crimes.

June 1 was a special day that lingers in my mind, even fifty-two days afterwards. My afternoon spent with Women Conquering Cancer made me realize how similar we are despite skin color or ideology. Kindness, acceptance, openness, and willingness to work together can help us achieve great things. Cancer makes no distinction between race, religion, or ethnicity; it is an equal opportunity disease, so the fight against cancer is definitely one cause in which we can agree to forge alliances in order to make progress. And perhaps in finding this common ground and working together in the health field, we will discover other common goals to improve and transform our world into a more prosperous, safe, and peaceful place for all its inhabitants.