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Riding on a mission

March 15, 2012

   They say once you learn, you never forget how to ride a bike. I never fully understood that phrase until I was 36 – when I finally learned how to do it.

    Why did I wait until I was almost four decades into my existence before I decided that I wanted to acquire this skill? It’s probably because I’m the type of person who always has to have “that project” on which to focus. If my mind is left idling and not monopolized by a topic that requires vast amounts of organization, it begins to delve into negative realms. Past pains resurface or concerns about the future persist, and I get lost in a maze of “what ifs.” This usually leads to worries over nothing or the creation of problems where none had previously existed.

    Perhaps the need to have my brain constantly stimulated originates from being a mother since the tender age of 16. My days have been filled with mountains of responsibility for as long as I can remember. I was required to grow up quickly in order to balance raising my son, A.J., with finishing high school. Homework was timed around late-night feedings, diaper changes and early-morning alarms to make sure both of us were cared for completely. I then sped through college in three years to obtain my bachelor’s degree in communications and to enter the workforce as soon as I could, and my second son, Billy, came along right after.

    In essence, I’ve been “needed” since 1992, and while I still know that I am, I have begun to feel an immature sense of empty nest syndrome. This hit hard in 2009, when I turned my head for seemingly one moment, and my sons suddenly grew up. A.J. was 17 and Billy 12, and they both had found their sense of independence. I began to worry about the “what ifs,” especially what would I do with myself if “Mom” weren’t wanted or needed around as much.

    To combat that feeling, I started my quest for projects, beginning with a return to school to obtain my Master of Business Administration degree. I decided I would only do so if I could acquire a full scholarship because, with a child approaching college age, I couldn’t see the sense in two of us amassing student loan debt at the same time. I also recalled the thrill of paying off the student loan for my bachelor’s degree, and the feeling was so relieving. At that time, next to raising two boys as a single mother, it was my largest accomplishment, but it was a feeling I never wanted to have to relive.

   I was able to obtain a full-ride scholarship to Capella University in Minnesota by winning an essay contest, an award I was invited to accept during a taping of the “Tyra Banks Show” in New York City. This honor allowed me to complete my master’s degree online while still being at home for my children and working full time. Receiving the degree in November 2011 without the debt fully trumped my undergraduate experience.

    As I worked on completing the “Re-educate Lisa Project,” I realized that 2009 held a special milestone in my life – my fifth anniversary of being cancer-free. You never forget the day you hear those words, “You have cancer.” I had a history of pre-cancerous lesions since 1998, but biopsies had come back either “no change” or negative. I had grown accustom to the probing every six months, and during a visit earlier in 2004, no lesions were detected. This made the shock of the diagnosis even more numbing. “How could I be clear six months ago but then have a full cancer diagnosis now?” I asked myself repeatedly. Sept. 20, 2004, was “the day” for me. Cervical cancer, but it was caught early and still very treatable. Hearing that did little to console me at the time. I don’t remember driving away from the doctor’s office afterward, but I ended up at my mother’s house. My usual spring up the steps was more like a zombie march, and I was in a haze of anger, confusion and concern.

    How would I tell my 12- and 7-year-old?

    Would they even understand?

    What if the worst happens?

    How will I get my house in order this quickly?

    I walked through my parents’ always-open door and leaned into Mom’s arms as the tears fell. She knew without having to hear the words.

    A month later, I underwent a procedure called a Loop Electrosurgical Excision Procedure (LEEP), during which doctors used an electrically charged wire loop to remove cancerous cells from the cervix in an attempt to eliminate the cells without destroying my reproductive system. The cancer, however, spread deeper and had a chance of spreading farther unless I agreed to a full hysterectomy. By Dec. 21 of that year, I was declared cancer-free, but I also was left unable to have more children. I never felt ashamed during all the times I had been looked down upon for having my sons at such a young age, and I felt even more thankful to have them and that they came along before my diagnosis and subsequent treatment. I have always hated the phrase “things happen for a reason,” so I never fully appreciated the sentiment until that moment, when I realized there truly was a master plan for my having my sons when I barely an adult myself.

    So in 2009, as I mothered full time, worked full time and attended school full time, I decided I wanted to add one more project to my plate to celebrate my cancer-free status – I wanted to fight the disease. A friend had suggested that I should celebrate my fifth anniversary, but I felt like I wanted to do more than just party. I wanted to make a difference and to help others, so in December 2009, I organized the first “Stick it to Cancer Blood Drive and Basket Raffle.” My family members and friends, the saints they are, have helped me hold two more such events in 2010 and 2012 to raise money for cancer-related causes and our area paramedics and to collect blood donations for the American Red Cross. It was all to say thank you to the people who help me as well as other cancer patients, the first responders who rushed A.J. to Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo when he was born three months prematurely and the anonymous blood donors who helped A.J. when he required countless transfusions as a preemie.

    The drive to help cancer-related causes became even more personal in 2011, when Roswell Park Cancer Institute helped me seven years after my initial diagnosis and treatment. In 2008, four years after having the surgery that cured my cancer, I developed secondary lymphedema, a chronic swelling in my left leg that was the result of lymph nodes in my abdomen being removed during the surgery. After three years of being told by a primary-care physician that I would have to live with my left leg being 30 percent larger than my right leg because I was “getting old,” in the fall of 2011, I found help at Roswell Park, where physical therapists offered the proper lymphedema diagnosis and the corresponding treatment regimen.

    It was a “good news-bad news” situation. The good news – the treatment included massage for three weeks. The bad news – I would have to wrap my legs in compression bandages every night and wear a compression stocking every day for the rest of my life. Still, this beats the alternatives. I could still have cancer. I could have lost my leg without proper treatment. I consider myself extremely lucky to be alive, and I’m forever grateful to Roswell Park for bringing the swelling down dramatically.

    Lymphedema is something I will have to contend with, but if it hadn’t been for Roswell Park, I wouldn’t have known what was causing the swelling, and I wouldn’t be on the path to living a more normal life. After being diagnosed, my journalistic mind went to work, and I started researching the condition on the Internet. I can’t believe millions of people suffer from this condition, but so little is known about it. The numbers are staggering, with 3 million to 5 million people afflicted with secondary lymphedema alone across the United States, according to the book “Living Well With Lymphedema” by Ann Ehrlich, who also operates the website lymphnotes.com. Ehrlich’s research also shows that primary lymphedema – those born with the condition – occurs in between 1 in 6,000 and 1 in 300 live births nationally.

    I’ve found great solace in the lymphnotes.com blogs, forums and stories. Sometimes, knowing that there are others out there who understand exactly what you are experiencing helps you get through the day with a more positive outlook.

    With these staggering gaps in statistics and my exhaustive searches failing to turn up harder numbers, I was driven to help more. Since I am not a scientist, I decided to do what I do best – hound people for money! I wanted to raise awareness about this condition throughout my area, so I decided to make the main focus of Stick it to Cancer 2012 lymphedema and Roswell Park. In order to do this, I also decided that at the age of 36, I would take my first serious bicycling lessons and learn how to ride in a nine-week period in order to captain a team for the 2012 Ride for Roswell, an annual event that raises millions of dollars for cancer research and treatment at the facility.

    That’s right. I never learned how to ride a bike. My four sisters, brother and I didn’t have bikes until I was a teenager, and by then, the fear factor of breaking a bone – or worse – had set in, and I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. But after my journey through cancer and lymphedema, I figured it was time for a different type of venture. I decided that between Stick it to Cancer in April 2012 and the Ride for Roswell in June the same year, I would snap on the virtual training wheels so I could participate in one of Roswell’s largest fundraisers.

   In my mind, after all that Roswell Park had done for me, learning to ride a bike was the least I could do to give back.

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