My mom and I used to take walks every Saturday while I was in high school and long after I graduated college.
We would chat about everything from classes to relationships to spirituality. I would talk to her about finding a soul mate. We'd discuss what I wanted to do for my career. During these walks, we'd head toward a hill near our house. My mom would charge up that hill in record time, and I would have to fight to keep up.
We took another walk in January 2013, but it was different.
It was our first walk in a few months, and this time, we had to stop every 30 seconds because my mom would start gasping for air. Instead of running after her, I stood there cheering her on and holding back tears, watching her fight so hard for every step. This time, my mom had just had her fourth 13-hour procedure to remove tumors that were all over her body due to her aggressive form of liposarcoma, a type of soft tissue sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that begins in the fat cells. Her surgeon had just removed her entire left lung and a tumor the size of a volleyball from her chest.
The Mom I Used to Know
For as long as I can remember, a typical day for my mom meant playing a tennis match, going into work for a mediation (she was a family law mediator), taking a cycling class, and then attending one of my sibling's or my games or school events. She loved to entertain, to work, to be involved with our schools and our community, and to just spend time growing her meaningful friendships. She never complained about her health. In fact, I can barely even remember her having a cold.
In 2008, she began experiencing some pain in her abdominal region, and her stomach was a bit distended. She went in to get a PET scan. The test came back and showed an eight-pound malignant tumor between her back and her kidney. But after her tumor was removed, we thought she was cured. We thought it was over. Then, five months later, multiple tumors started growing back, and we realized the full meaning of her rare cancer.
"As Long As I Keep Moving"
Over the course of the next few years—and through four major surgeries, eight chemotherapies, and two radiation treatments—my mom consistently defied the odds by doing activities that her doctors did not think she could do. She cycled, skied, even rock climbed.
But by our January 2013 walk, my mom had one kidney, one lung, no spleen, no diaphragm, and tumors strangling her esophagus—and yet she wanted to prove that she could still hike that hill.
Instead of pulling her long brown hair into a tight ponytail that January day like she used to, her newly growing-back hair was hidden under a beanie hat. She had on sweatpants, a windbreaker, and gloves even though it was about 70 degrees out, because the radiation and chemotherapy treatments caused perpetual coldness. She let me film her as she could barely breathe, bent over telling the camera that she was trying to get herself into shape. It was painful for me to watch my mom fight so hard just to maintain a fraction of her former physical activity level, but she wanted to feel healthy, and for her, that meant staying active.
I knew that most people wouldn't have been able to leave their beds at this stage of illness. I felt so much admiration and pride knowing that my mom had such an incredible love of life, such a will to live, that she refused to let the reality of her physical condition hold her back. There were moments when my throat would tighten and tears would well because I could clearly see how much her cancer had taken from her.
But the example she set for me as she put one foot in front of the other despite the pain and discomfort will stay with me forever.
The walk we took in early January 2013, that I'm fortunate to have filmed a clip of, turned out to be just three months before my mom passed away. She succumbed to the disease in March 2013. But I can still hear her telling me, "As long as I keep moving, the cancer can't catch me."
The Birth of the Wendy Walk
Another reason my mom kept pushing that day in January 2013: Because she wasn’t only hiking for herself. She wanted to show all soft tissue sarcoma cancer patients that they did not have to stop, that they could keep moving, too. She walked for the hundreds of people who were inspired by her strength.
She walked for Wendy Walk—an organization my siblings and I created in 2010 to raise funds and awareness for liposarcoma and other rare sarcomas in order to help save our mom’s life.
Even as her health deteriorated, my mom fought hard to be able to do something active every single day—Wendy Walk exemplifies that focus on fitness. We hold walks in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and Park City, in addition to indoor cycling events in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami. You can learn more about the Wendy Walk and how you can participate at wendywalk.org.
As my siblings and I walked in the Wendy Walks earlier this year, each time surrounded by 500 other participants, I knew my mom was right there walking with us in spirit. We’re proud to be able to carry on her legacy and her amazing will to not give up.
Ali Landes, 28, is the Executive Director of Wendy Walk. She lived in New York City for five years, where she worked for various non-profits and the now-mayor Bill de Blasio. She currently lives in Los Angeles, along with her siblings and Wendy Walk co-founders Matt Landes, 28, and Jackie Landes, 23.
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