Returning to life - Martha Carr

It can be difficult to figure out how to honor a life, two lives in this story, but that's the task in front of me. What a strange passage to go from being told there's just one year of life left, only to find out there may be more time.

That's a lot to take in, and everything ends up getting recalibrated to adjust for the new ideas. A little over a year ago, that was me when the doctors at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago diagnosed me with melanoma, stage two, Clark level IV.

It's that last part, the Clark level that got to be a stage four that will make those in the know shudder with recognition. The doctors were convinced I was on my way out of this life at 50, even though I felt fine. It was a breathtaking adjustment to the way I saw everything. Nothing bothered me as much and I was relieved to find that I was pretty satisfied with what I'd done with my life.

However, reports of my demise were premature and the doctor's got clean lines and my lymph nodes came back as negative. My odds went up to around 70 percent, which is far better, and a year later I'm still here. OK, so there were a couple more bouts with melanoma in the same year, unrelated incidents fortunately, but for the past six months I've been completely cancer free.

That's not how every story goes.

This past Saturday on New Year's Day, my friend William passed away from complications of melanoma, or skin cancer that he had been battling for the past year. He had the same initial diagnosis as I did, and even in the same location on his leg, but with one difference. The lymph nodes were fully involved.

The disease spread swiftly through his body and just a few days ago, the disease took his life.

William fought over this past year as hard as he could, searching for any surgery or experimental drug that was available. Currently, there is only one drug protocol for melanoma, and it's brand new and the disease is second only to leukemia in killing people of working age. It's also the fastest growing cancer in the U.S. He wanted to live, but the odds weren't with him.

Here I am, on the other side of that story, looking for ways to honor William's life and the second chance I've been given.

Once the idea is out there that life may come to an abrupt end, though, it takes a little effort to return to living, not just existing, and push the boundaries way beyond the old comfort levels. It doesn't matter that I'm over 50 or my left leg needs a little extra help.

I'm determined to get out there to find out what I can still do, and then some.

I'm starting with a group called Recovery on Water, www.RecoveryonWater.org, a rowing team made up of breast cancer survivors here in Chicago that was founded by their coach, Jenn Gibbons, back in 2008.

The team now has more than 50 women from 29 to 64 years old, who compete in regattas throughout the Midwest, such as the Chicago Sprints and the Tail of the Fox regatta in DePere, Wisconsin.

Jenn and I are working together to raise funds and expand the program for melanoma survivors. Rowing is a great way to work out with a body that has changed from surgery, and as a crew, we can learn to draw from each other.

It costs about $1,000 to support a rower and information on how to donate is at the web site. If it's in support of melanoma rowers make sure to include that as a notation on your donation.

Jenn, who is 26, is determined to bring the sport of rowing to more survivors and is training to row solo across the ocean at the end of this year from West Africa to South America as a fund-raiser for ROW, www.Row4Row.org.

"I'm rowing the Atlantic, because it's a dream of mine, [and I might be crazy] and I'm raising funds and awareness for a cause I feel very passionate about," wrote Jenn.

She's willing to endure what could be weeks of struggle, loneliness and some danger in order to test herself and honor others while bringing attention to a good cause. I'll be sure to keep all of my readers up to date with the rowing team and the Atlantic expedition as the year progresses. In the meantime, return to your life and look for ways to expand the boundaries until you're equal parts excited and optimistic and need to work as a team to get there.

Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. Her latest book is the memoir, "A Place to Call Home." www.MarthaRandolphCarr.com. E-mail Martha at: Martha@caglecartoons.com.