It was about 2 1⁄2 years ago that I sat in my oncologist’s office and he told me that he was going with this group called Above + Beyond Cancer to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with a bunch of cancer survivors and care givers. I, point blank, told him he was crazy. “You should really do something like this with them, it’s awesome!” he said. I sat there, bald from just losing my hair after my first round of chemo, 7 more chemo treatments, many surgeries and radiation left to go and replied “There is no way I am going on anything like that. I don’t even CAMP!” He laughed and rolled his eyes at me (by this point he knew me well and we had a great history of witty banter).
Then he handed me a small red fabric square. “It’s a prayer flag” he said. “Take it home and decorate it however you wish. Then bring it back to me and I will carry it up Mt. Kilimanjaro and fly it for you, in honor or your battle with cancer.” Wow! That sounded cool. I took it home, got as crafty as I’m able and printed an iron on design that said “Mixdorf” (my last name, with a breast cancer ribbon as the “x”), my diagnosis date and my cancer free goal, which was 6 months in the future. I didn’t really grasp the full meaning of the prayer flag, but it seemed pretty cool, none the less. And, pretty cool that he was willing to carry it for me.
He went on the trek and brought the flag back to me and I hung it in my bedroom. It was really cool that he had carried on his entire trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro but I still didn’t grasp the significance of it.
Fast forward a little more than two years. I am sitting on my bed, on my computer, with that very prayer flag hanging on the wall to my right. I am on Facebook and notice that the Above and Beyond Cancer organization is accepting applications for its 2014 trek. On a whim, I apply. Yes, me, the girl who said “There is no way I am going on anything like that. I don’t even CAMP!” My 17 year old daughter and husband walk in right after I’ve applied and I tell them what I’ve done. My husband looks at me like “are you serious?” My 17 daughter laughs loudly and says “you don’t even camp!” (See, I told you so)
A few months later I find out I am chosen. I’m excited but mostly very nervous. After all, I don’t camp. Training, eating right, more training, and hiking all follow. The prayer flag that went to Mt. Kilimanjaro is now going to get taken to Machu Picchu in Peru, in my very own backpack. That little red piece of fabric that I didn’t really understand or know what it meant now has a totally different meaning. Above + Beyond Cancer uses prayer flags to create tributes to individuals who have been touched by cancer. To me they symbolize the strength it takes for cancer patients. Physical strength to endure chemotherapy, radiation, surgeries and whatever other elements are part of our treatment plan to fight this demon we call cancer; emotional strength to try to stay positive and not let it totally take over our moods and days; mental strength to become experts on our own type of cancer; strength of character to get up and keep going, strength of faith to carry us through the dark times of cancer treatment.
All of these strengths are required to different degrees during and after treatment. Once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer it becomes part of your very being. Not just physically but mentally too. Just like the fibers that make up the fabric of that red square of fabric, cancer too is woven into who we are as cancer patients. In many ways, those who have endured cancer are all woven together. We share that common thread whether we have survived the beast or not.
As I board the plan for Peru in one week, the prayer flags that I carry for others will stay with me on the plane. No checking these prayer flags, they are precious cargo and will be carried on personally to the plane. They will continue in my backpack as I climb Machu Picchu for 5 days of our trip. On this trip I will carry many different prayer flags. Flags to honor many who lost their battle to cancer: my aunt who was one of the funniest people I knew, the flag of a beautiful young girl, the flag in honor or my friend who battled the same type of breast cancer I did and was my mentor and strength through so many of my hard days of treatment, and many more. I will also carry flags for many survivors which are all significant. There is a special red prayer flag that will be going with me. It made it up Mt. Kilimanjaro with the doctor who helped save my life. It’s a cute red flag that reads “Mixdorf” with a breast cancer ribbon as the “x” and cancer free date from 2012. It’s pretty cool.
Sue Mixdorf is a cancer survivor and participant of the 2014 Above + Beyond Cancer: Journey to Machu Picchu. You can make a donation to Above + Beyond Cancer in Sue’s honor here.