Sterile Masks, Headwinds, and the Strength to Cope With Both


Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

The unsettling dirty look from the old man in an aisle seat while Mom, Sis, and I boarded Southwest flight 998 back to Reno on Saturday, June 9 immediately snapped me out of the fog I’d been in for the preceding few hours. I’d been awake—or fruitlessly trying to sleep on an airport floor—for nearly 20 hours and had run a marathon to boot, but that ugly stare gave a jolt like a Venti Americano with four extra shots of espresso and a Red Bull back…especially when I realized that the stare wasn’t directed at me, but the person directly behind me: my Big Sis, Lily.

The realization came quickly and the hairs on the back of my neck rose as I fought the urge to slap that hideous look off of the thoughtless man’s face. He wasn’t so much glaring at my sister as at the sterile mask on her face; a necessary and uncomfortable accessory that she wore in order to accompany me to the Utah Valley Marathon while undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. Her oncologist didn’t even want her to go to Utah—nor anyplace more than about 100 miles from his office—during her treatment. Wearing that mask and the accompanying compression sleeve (every bit as uncomfortable as the mask, the nearly $100 accessory prevents Lymphadema, a complication associated with breast cancer and exacerbated by air travel, in which a patient’s arm can irreversibly swell as a result of the removal of lymph nodes during a mastectomy or lumpectomy) was the only way she could see her baby brother run.

I refrained from smacking the man and telling him in a shaking and angry tone that the person he was glaring at was nothing short of a heromy hero. As I had done during the race that morning when a strong and persistent headwind dashed any hopes of a PR, I took a deep breath and thought of the nearly unfathomable strength Sis has shown through her entire life and, most recently, her fight against cancer and continued insistence on supporting her baby brother during races despite the hardships of doing so during chemotherapy treatments.

Lily is, without a doubt, the strongest person I’ve ever known. Whether it was joining forces with our oldest sister Charlene to protect my brother and me from the violent outbursts of our father or holding two jobs because her fierce sense of loyalty wouldn’t allow her to quit the less necessary of the two, Sis has been the subject of my admiration for longer than she probably knows. And that respect has only grown in the years since I’ve started running and the months since she was diagnosed with cancer. Every race, big and small, near and far, no matter the weather or her health, Sis is there, camera in hand, cheering until she literally loses her voice.

When her doctor told her she would be unable to join mom and me at the Boston Marathon earlier this year, she was more worried about me than herself and comforted me when I failed to hold back my tears. And it was one of only two times during her ongoing ordeal that I have seen her cry.

Showing her typical tenacity and quietly persistent optimism, Sis waited to cancel her plane ticket to Boston until the day before the flight, and right up to the moment she clicked “cancel” on the airline’s website, she truly believed that somehow, someway she would still see her baby brother run in Boston. When it came time to embark on the short trip to Salt Lake City and Provo for the Utah Valley Marathon two weeks ago, breast cancer, sterile masks, ugly-faced old men, or the devil himself weren’t going to keep her from another race.

The memory of Sis putting on her mask for the first time played over in my head during the marathon more times than I can count. She laughed and joked with mom and me as she placed the mask over her mouth and nose and adjusted its straps with slightly shaking hands, her insurmountable will and stoic grace belying her self-conscious nervousness. As I plodded into the unrelenting headwinds of miles eight through 19, I struggled to wrap my head around the amount of strength it took to put on that mask. In the hardest moments of the race, the memory pushed me up hills, past my competitors, and through whatever pain I felt; I was only running, and the strength it took was nothing compared to what Sis had gone through just to see me run.

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