Standing Tall and Walking Strong...Making Strides

I walked in my 3rd Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 5k today.
The first year I participated was 2010. It was two weeks after I had become a widow at 46 – my diagnosis was a mere 4 months old and I had been on chemo for two months. I was unable to walk unassisted from the car door to the waiting wheelchair that would take me around the 3 mile course. The multiple fractures in my spine due to the cancer kept me from being able to walk; my three month stay in the hospital and later rehab had me feeling very frail and extremely weak.

I remember it being crazy cold that year. Or at least that’s how it felt to me… I hadn’t thought it would be that cold and was not prepared for it. Luckily I did have a jacket with a hood or it would’ve been horrible. My new survivor t-shirt was wrapped around my hands keeping them warm. I had a survivor necklace on with a medallion… but I didn’t really feel I was a survivor then, it was all too new. “I’m not a survivor yet, I’m merely surviving for now” I would reply when asked how long I had been a survivor.

That first year was eye opening for me, so many people, so much pink, so much chaos. I was with my sister and niece who took turns pushing me around the course. It wasn’t their first walk so they sort of knew what to expect – but I was like a child on her first trip to Disney world… I wanted to see everything, and go everywhere. I found that many of the booths were giving things away… what did they have? I want one. Take me over there, over there… I felt confined in every sense of the word. Stuck having to rely on someone else for everything and I hated that – I who had always been so fiercely independent was now for all intents and purposes an invalid needing to be cared for, coddled and transported. It was wretched.

I heard my own voice in my head talking to my late husband,“look at them all Rick. They’re all still fighting, they’re all still surviving. I can do this. I can fight this thing, this plague that all but taken over our world, I can and will survive. You didn’t give me a chance to prove that to you but I WILL make it. You’ll see.” Upon hearing the news of my diagnosis, Rick, my big strong former Marine, ex-LAPD officer had begun a downward spiral, he expected to lose me and in the end he was the one who left and I am still here two years later getting stronger every day. It wasn’t meant to be I suppose, part of God’s plan for me to make this journey without him.

But I am NOT alone. I have so much love and support from all my friends, and family. People I’ve met at the The Center for Building Hope, through church, my two bible study small groups. I am surrounded by love and positivity.

My second year was 2011. It was better this year, but no less full of drama. Just a month before the walk the pain in my back started to intensify. My Dr. ordered an MRI and they found two more fractures bringing the total to six. The bones in my spine had basically cracked under the pressure and weight of the surrounding bones. I was scheduled for a procedure called kyphoplasty where a cement-like liquid is injected into the actual vertebrae to heal the fracture, fuse the bone and keep it from breaking again. The very next morning I awoke pain free, and standing straighter than I had been. I felt great as we drove to the polo field.

I had my wheelchair with me of course, it was 3 miles after all… but I said to myself, last year I couldn’t walk at all, now I can. I’m going to walk through that starting line of pink balloons to the first stop sign perhaps 500 feet away and then I will sit down… then I will get up and walk through that finish line.

Initially I was in the chair as I was wheeled around to all the booths and tents. The first year I didn’t know anyone, but now I had many new friends I had met over the course of the year and it was great to see them all. It was cold that morning too, but I was ready this time. I had on long sleeves, gloves, a hat, my hoodie-sweatshirt and socks.

I got out of the wheelchair and stood behind it, hands firmly holding the handles. They signaled for the walk to begin and I along with 15,000 others took our first steps forward. My friends and family were aghast! “Sit down” they railed at me, “you just had surgery!!” “No I didn’t,” I replied, “I had a procedure… and I feel great, and strong, let me walk.” “NO!!” they all said and tried to make me get in the chair. I loved them for being so caring towards me but seriously they were going to ruin everything! I stood my ground. “I am going to walk to that damn stop sign right there and THEN I’ll get in the chair, because last year I couldn’t walk at all and this year I can. So let me do it, please… and before y’all freak out I’m going to get up and walk through that finish line too so don’t even start.”

I heard and felt a collective sigh on the part of my “team” and they stepped back to let me do what I needed to do. I remember thinking to myself that I had taken walking and standing up straight for granted all my life. That it was such a gift to be strong and capable and confident, knowing that you weren’t going to fall down just because you were walking. I had lost that confidence but I vowed I would get it back someday. I spoke again to my husband and said “Hey pal, I’m still here, still chugging along.”

I made it to the stop sign and as promised I got in and was pushed the rest of the way. I might’ve tried to go further but a promise is a promise so down I sat. The day was cool and the sun felt great. The event had more people that year than before and it was just as chaotic, and just as pink. Now I wore my survivor necklace proudly, I had made it a year. A year of radiation, chemo, hair loss, weakness, fatigue you name it, I had it. I was still struggling to put on weight; and wasn’t that steady on my feet but I was able to walk and drive and I was getting my independence back. I was blessed that the chemo didn’t make me sick so I counted myself lucky all things considered.

Three miles later I finished the walk on my feet as I planned and had photos taken as I crossed the line. What a sense of accomplishment! I vowed that the next year I would do more and more the year after that and one year I would complete that walk on my own two feet with no wheelchair in sight.

The morning of October 20, 2012 was beautiful… and warm. I was prepared for a chill and it wasn’t to be. It was breezy and sunny and just delightful. The kind of day that we all live in FL for. I was up early, ready early and at my sister’s house on time. A rarity for me to be sure but I was determined. This year I would walk further than I had the last.

The sun was just coming up as we arrived and I took a photo of it. More than 20,000 people milled around the polo grounds this year. There was music blaring, and the LWR high school drum-line and cheerleaders were all lined up at the starting line playing their drums and cheering.

This year I knew even more people and had to go to three different locations to greet them all.
The same pink balloon arch greeted me as I stepped up in my survivor shirt, necklace and pins with all the other survivors lined up in the front to start the walk. My hands gripped the wheelchair handles and my “team” surrounded me with love and support. My friend Ellen leaned in, “How far are you going to go this year Normie?” she asked with a supporting hand on my back. “I don’t know, let’s see…” I replied as we took off walking.

I passed the stop sign that had been my goal the previous year, turned the corner and kept on going. I passed the line of parked cars on the eastern edge of the polo grounds and kept on going. I had no pain, I was ecstatic. I came up on the second turn, I could see university pkwy ahead of me as I made a left – I was still going strong. My posse encouraging me with every step, “You’re doing so great!” “Are you tired? I’ll push whenever you’re ready.” “I’m good” I replied and kept on going. We started to pass the big houses with their massive stables and I was still ok. I had gone so far I thought as I looked back across the polo field to the tents to my left.

I started to think, maybe I shouldn’t over do. I felt ok now, but what about tomorrow? I didn’t want to be immobilized for doing too much… I saw a driveway coming up on my right and I started to make my way through the crowd to it. I figured I would pull off, and sit down out of the way of the other walkers. I pulled in and made my pit-stop. I sat down, got my cushions situated, and tucked everyone’s bags in around me. Ellen was pushing and she pulled back out into the stream of people as we took off again.

Not even 100 feet later there was the one mile mark! I hadn’t seen it when I pulled over due to the crowd. I could’ve made it there!! I was so upset, here it was and I almost made it. I didn’t know it when I started but that had been my goal. Now there it was and I missed it because the sign was small and hidden from view. What a drag I thought to myself, I was RIGHT THERE!!!

I took a deep breath and shook it off. I had walked a mile less 100 feet. That was definitely an accomplishment for me. I couldn’t even make it 10 minutes at Wal-Mart but I walked a mile. And I reasoned that I did walk a mile because I had walked around without my wheelchair for support at the polo grounds before the race while saying hello to everyone and had walked approximately 500 feet through the finish line – so I did make it and then some.

I’m still fighting my fight two years post diagnosis. I’m still by myself but not alone. My chemo is every three weeks now not every week for three weeks. I’ve taken two trips across the state to visit my aunt, two to Orlando for conventions, and one to the mountains of GA for a family vacation. I’m stronger every day, I’m finally putting the weight back on, and while I’m still not completely confident that I will not fall down with my next step, I do feel better about things.

Next year… two miles.

by Norma Pitzer-Kelly

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