In the winter of 2016, I learned what it felt like for cancer to touch someone I loved in a new and immediate way. Yes, I knew about cancer – it had lived in both of my grandfathers, in beloved school nurses, in teachers, in godparents – but this was different. I was with my dad at the mall, shopping for a new jacket, when he told me casually and without preamble that he had been diagnosed with melanoma, but that he hadn’t told me until now because he didn’t want the news to interfere with my life at school.
They removed the spot, he told me. He was going to be fine, but the doctor said the cancer had progressed even a millimeter deeper into his skin, we would be having a different conversation entirely.
One millimeter was the reason my life remained relatively unchanged by this news, and yet knowledge of that millimeter reordered my existence. Looking at each freckle on my dad’s face and back made my skin crawl. Cancer felt like fear and helplessness, and one millimeter felt like chance giving random and temporary favor. My father – the most generous man I’ve ever known, who derives joy from giving and lives more enthusiastically than most people my own age – was going to be ok, but something inside of me couldn’t accept that my dad had been so lucky. Cancer felt like waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I focused on other things. Passionate about education, I spent 2017 working as a summer school teacher for Breakthrough, an AmeriCorps program with sites across the US that provides an intensive college preparatory experience to kids from underserved areas. The kids were challenging – often coming from little, they acted like they had something to prove. The last week of the program was particularly exhausting, emotionally and physically. It was then that the director of the program took all of the seventh grade teachers aside and told us that she had bad news.
One of the seventh graders at Breakthrough had been diagnosed with leukemia the night before. She would not be returning to school for the rest of the summer. She had just begun her six-year journey with the program, a journey that, as we constantly reminded the kids, is about their future. Now, cancer could take that future from her. This time, feeling silent dread was not enough. I felt compelled to take action, and to answer the anger I felt at cancer with purpose.
A large part of Texas 4000’s mission is to educate communities about cancer, and although I won’t be a doctor, I am not without power in the fight against cancer. My father and his father suffered one of the most common and preventable forms of cancer, which can be almost entirely avoided by proper skin care. Our Breakthrough student exhibited warning signs of leukemia long before she saw a doctor. I could not have stopped any of them from getting cancer, but access to information and proper education can help others. For me, Texas 4000 is about confronting the fear and paralysis cancer so often inflicts on its victims and their loved ones. Our mission is to spread hope, knowledge, and charity – one mile at a time. I ride with love for my entire extended family, which has been touched by cancer too many times.