Wearing the bracelet

Posted: Friday, February 17, 2006

If you look at people's wrists these days, their watches are often sharing the coveted space with a rubber bracelet. Often, it's yellow. This is the wrist band of cancer awareness. In last year's American presidential elections, every time a candidate raised a hand to make a point, out from under his shirt cuff flashed a band- a mark of caring, compassion and commitment to a cause. In schools, students now sport a myriad of other colored bands. They carry insider messages such as WWJD - What Would Jesus Do?, to the more visible rainbow colored bracelets supporting same-sex union families. The bands have become so commonplace that I wonder, has the message worn off, the novelty worn thin? Has the medium worn out the message? Or has this fascination with symbolic awareness broken through our cynicism in this age of rampant materialism and global non-connectedness? Do these cheap battered and discolored rubber tokens indeed allow us to literally wear our causes on our sleeves, bond us and help us cope better as humans with challenge?

I am a cancer patient, a teacher, a competitive cross-country skier and a bit of a non-conformist. And despite my high level of cynicism towards fads, novelty and consumerism, surprisingly for me, the band does make a difference. It makes me aware moment-to-moment of my strengths and weaknesses and reminds me that I'm not the first person who has traveled this tough road.

Chemo is hard. The cheery oncology nurses I meet are angels sent from heaven, but I can see in their eyes that they have seen lots of people go through this. I have had several operations and left my home in Alaska to undergo three months of chemotherapy. As a Canadian living away, this has been a homecoming mixed with the blessings and tough challenges. I have enjoyed lots of close time with my supportive wife, sharing unexpected time with close family and friends, spending time in a country I miss when I am away and getting to read a lot of books that often spend too much time on my bookshelf. The challenges have been missing out on four months of a life I love up north, and facing the daily challenges of medical decisions and the uncomfortable side effects of the lifesaving chemotherapy.

I met the yellow bracelet first as a school teacher. Students fashionably wore them. It reminded me of a red cotton string I saw people in India wear after they had visited a guru. When I got diagnosed with cancer it was a dramatic shock, and a friend delivered the yellow Lance Armstrong Foundation band to me. The bracelet reminded me that not all the abstract and practical tools that I needed could be summoned by me alone. At certain times I need stuff and other people's help. I needed to remember I was not alone.

When I returned to work after surgery it was a bag of bracelets that made it easier to articulate the whole notion of my illness to students. Finally, when I relapsed and started more surgery and my present chemical highway, the band is there again reminding me that living through this and learning from it is the form of strength that I can have during and after treatment. Ultimately, when I walk into the chemotherapy center I am welcomed with everyone wearing the band reminding me that my little story is part of a much larger challenge.

So where is the balance between the cynics view of the bracelet phenomena with the fad-driven unaware bracelet wearers? How can we be sure the bracelet, or other symbols we as people adopt, don't loose their benefits? We can look to the people in the trenches to learn that lesson.

The doctors and nurses were there before Armstrong's band made such an impact, are there now as I get hooked up for my regular drip, and will be there in the future still looking for cures and caring. They are the ones who always wear the bracelet. They are aware of the ins and outs of the disease and the benefits and impacts of large organizations like the Armstrong Foundation and the bracelets. These medical warriors remind us that cancer is a part of life that we can have the courage to face and try to understand and improve upon. This awareness reminds us to be thankful for our blessings, and reach for a better understanding of the human condition in the face of a challenge: Just like the devotees in India with red cotton string who have traveled on pilgrimage with a need to find peace in themselves.

• Juneau resident Dominic Bradford is a teacher.

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