I’m often a day late and a dollar short, but I wanted to commemorate World Cancer Day, which was yesterday February 4th. Like most of us out there, I know far too many people who are dealing with cancer. Some we have lost, but most are fighting valiantly and kicking it in the pants. I am particularly inspired by our littlest warriors, who seem to fight the hardest without even knowing it.
A few years ago, I found out a sorority sister that I had just reconnected with had received a lung cancer diagnosis. Ali was not a smoker and seemingly healthy up until she found out she had cancer. It rocked my world.
After bravely fighting the disease for more than two years, Ali passed away just over a year ago. While her loss still feels fresh, I will be forever grateful to her for changing my perspective on life. The grace in which she handled a terminal diagnosis was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The only thing that overshadowed this, was the overwhelming generosity of her closest friends, who put their lives on hold to care for Ali in her darkest hour. It was beautiful and tragic at the same time.
What yesterday reminded me of was that yes, we need to live in the moment, but we also must take the time to nurture the relationships we value the most. Ali taught all she knew to Always Live Inspired. And that we shall do.
I thought I would share an article I put together that appeared in The Key, a publication for Kappa Kappa Gamma, the sorority I belonged to in my college days. The article was published before Ali passed through heaven’s gates, but I hope it gives you a glimpse of who she was, and how she impacted so many.
So, my regular, light-hearted commentary will resume later this week. Today, love on those that mean the most, and be kind to all. You never know when you may need a shoulder to lean on.
Living Inspired, Living Strong, Living Kappa
The first time I saw Ali Pickard, she was enthusiastically lip syncing “We Are Family” into a hairbrush. While some might consider this an odd way to meet someone, she was performing in a skit for round three of Rush Week at the University of Florida, and I was blown away by the girl with the long auburn hair and electric blue eyes that seemed to literally twinkle. She had a million-watt smile and a kinetic energy that made her larger than life. I liked this girl.
Although I can’t say that Ali was the only reason I pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma in fall 1992, her Sister Sledge performance is permanently etched in my brain, and I rarely use my round hair brush without thinking of her. While this is a great memory for me, no one could have foreseen how appropriate the song would become for Ali and her sisters in the Epsilon Phi chapter.
A few years ago, Facebook brought many of my sorority sisters back in touch, Ali and I included. We found that several of our friends were located in the greater D.C. area and soon enough, we were re-connecting at dinners, events, and more. I learned that Ali had a great job at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a huge network of close friends, and an active social calendar that included quenching her passion for live music by following some local bands. Her life was not only active and full, it was good.
This is why it came as a shock when, on August 3, 2010, Ali–a seemingly healthy, vibrant 37-year-old–was diagnosed with Stage IV non-small cell adenocarcinoma lung cancer. She had no symptoms except for a few headaches and some numbness in her left leg and arm. She doesn’t smoke, and the cancer is inoperable.
“What Can We Do?”
Adenocarcinoma is the most common form of non-small cell lung cancer, accounting for up to 50 percent of cases in the United States. It is the type of lung cancer usually found in non-smokers, and is the most common type seen in women. It starts in the periphery of the lungs and can be present for a long time before it is detected.
In this case, to say “life isn’t fair” would be an understatement. I cannot count the number of times I uttered the phrase “cancer sucks” in the weeks following Ali’s diagnosis.
Ali immediately began using a Caring Bridge journal to keep us all updated. In typical Ali fashion, she nearly always started and finished her entries by thanking everyone for their love and support. She is keenly aware of how many people want to be kept abreast to what is going on, and although I am sure she would rather have some privacy, she regularly and honestly communicates on her progress–even when the news is difficult.
That’s the type of person Ali is. She is empathetic to her friends’ needs even though she is facing the battle of her life.
As Ali began an aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatment plan, my fellow Kappas and I tried to figure out two things: how could this be happening, and what could we do to help?
But how could we possibly help someone going through something so seemingly insurmountable?
We had to start somewhere, so we became relentless in sending her cards, posting words of encouragement on her Facebook page, and sharing our favorite memories of Ali, yet none of us really felt like we were having an impact. A few Kappas who were extremely close to Ali visited her, but with her immune system weakened because of her treatment, those visits had to be limited for the sake of her health. We had to do more.
Always Live Inspired
Anyone following Ali’s journey was constantly inspired by her will to not let cancer define her. When her hair started falling out, she rocked some beautiful scarves. When she was able, she continued to work. There was no self-pity and only the occasional tired complaint. She acts in the way we all hope we would handle ourselves if faced with such adversity.
The one positive in this overwhelming situation is that Ali is “single” in marital status only. After her diagnosis, it quickly became clear that Ali was not just “our” sister. Instead, she had hundreds of people who were taking her to doctors’ appointments, bringing her food, or merely acting as ongoing sources of support.
A close friend of hers started selling “A*L*I (Always Live Inspired) STRONG” pink bracelets to raise money for her living expenses. People began sending her pictures of themselves wearing the bracelets from all around the world, including Germany, Brazil, Finland, Italy, Hawaii, New York City and both Disney World and Disney Land, among hundreds of other locales. The bracelets have also been featured sky diving, at the U.S. Open, at several U2 concerts, and the Daytona Motor Cross.
While this outpouring of support seemed to help lift Ali’s spirits, it wasn’t improving her health.. Although she responded well to her first round of radiation and chemotherapy treatments, it suddenly stopped working a few months later when the tumors started growing again. She had a few stints in the hospital due to varying side effects related to her treatment. She had tried two different, aggressive forms of treatment, but nothing seemed to be working. She was getting frustrated and tired, and we were getting worried and anxious.
In spring 2011, however, Ali was well enough to participate in the National Lung Cancer Partnership’s “Free to Breath” (www.freetobreath.org) 5K walk in Delmarva, Del., with several of her local friends. This was an inspiration to many of her sorority sisters, who began donating to this important cause, and, more importantly, spurred many Kappas to race in honor of Ali.
“We were honored to have Ali involved with our Delmarva event in August,” says Susan Smedley Gerber, Development Manager, National Events, National Lung Cancer Partnership. “She graciously shared her story with the local media and spoke at the rally, lending her crucial perspective to the event. As a testament to the type of support she has garnered, her team ’Ali Strong’ was the top fundraising team for that event.”
Gerber adds that weeks later, more members of the team participated in the Harrisburg, Pa., 5K event and that in November, she personally met the Kappas who came out in support of Ali at the Orlando 5K run/walk.
“We have been so inspired to see members of Kappa Kappa Gamma from around the country come forward to demonstrate their caring and concern for Ali while joining the movement to defeat lung cancer,” Gerber says. “All lung cancer patients and survivors need to feel that kind of support and that their experience matters.”
We ARE Family
As the holiday season approached, a few of us began an online dialogue to discuss what we could do for Ali. What started as one email message directed at 11 individuals turned into a fantastic online fundraising event with 165 Kappas spanning eight pledge classes participating in some form.
On December 10, a Christmas tree decorated with owls, keys, and fleur-de-lis was delivered to Ali by two of her close sorority sisters. With the extra money from the donations, our group also paid for Ali’s cleaning service for the next year and supplied her with a debit card to use at her discretion for groceries and other living expenses. The grand finale was a key necklace delivered to her house on Christmas day—of course, presented in a little blue box—so Ali will know that her Kappa are always close to her heart.
This outpouring of support from our sisters not only brought us even closer together, it also showed us that being a Kappa truly is a lifelong experience.
Even more importantly, after our fundraising planning kicked into gear, either by coincidence, providence, or both, Ali finally received some great news: the nodules in her lungs had decreased in both size and activity for the first time. Although she is not out of the woods, Ali is basking in the positive news with a renewed optimism for her future—as are all her many supporters.
Ali is not the first, nor will she be the last, Kappa to have cancer. What her struggle has done, however, is remind a group of nearly middle-aged women of a pledge we took long ago when we thought we were invincible and life didn’t seem nearly so fragile.
Ali sang the following lyrics into a hairbrush 20 years ago: “We are family. I got all my sisters with me.” As a young girl before joining Kappa, I couldn’t truly appreciate what those words meant. Now, a lifetime later, I am so proud to be living those lyrics–with all my sisters–for Ali.
* Footnote: I would estimate that more than $50,000 in funding has been raised over the last two and a half years in Ali’s name for llung cancer research and prevention. She may be gone, but we will make sure her legacy lives on.