By Katherine Brown
I find it pretty ironic that my sister and I cannot swim to save our lives, yet this past weekend we joined hundreds of others in a swimming pool to save the lives of others.
Held at Mills College’s Trefethen Aquatic Center in Oakland, Swim-A-Mile is one of the biggest fundraising events for the Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC) in Oakland. This past weekend, we all swam and walked to raise money so that the WCRC can continue to provide free services to women with cancer, and help for their loved ones. The center offers counseling, information and referral, community education and advocacy, and help finding financial assistance programs.
I became connected to WCRC in 2005. I was in the final year of the Masters of Public Health Program at San Francisco State University and was preparing to work on my Culminating Experience – the equivalent to a thesis. My project focus was on African-American women and their attitudes, beliefs, and awareness when it comes to breast and cervical cancer. I was all set to go – but I needed a place to do my research.
I called nearly a dozen different agencies, programs, and groups in the Bay Area, asking for their help. But every call was met with a “no.”
With time quickly leaving my side, I began to worry that this project wouldn’t ever happen. Luckily, my last call was to the WCRC. They said yes!
Ultimately, my project turned out to be a success! Through the experience, not only did I learn more about how diseases like breast and cervical cancer have such huge impacts on a community that I identify with, but I learned so much about a place that does so many amazing things for women as they battle along their journey with cancer. I wish I had known about the center when my granny was going through hers.
My granny, Kate Brown, was one of the strongest women I have ever known. With only a 10th grade education that she completed in the segregated South of the 1940s, she cleaned houses and styled hair in her kitchen. She used the money she earned to support a family of five children that she was raising on her own. She was a self-taught seamstress, quilter, gardener, storyteller, and the best blackberry pie maker that I ever knew. She also loved butterflies.
On December 27, 2000, my granny passed away. However, I didn’t find out until two months later that she had cancer. With her strength, my granny had a great sense of pride. She wanted no one to pity her in her illness. The only people that knew she had this disease were her physicians and my mother.
When I learned of this, I was hurt, sad, confused, and angry – all at the same time. Why didn’t anyone tell me? How could I have helped her? Why didn’t her doctor’s catch the tumor? The more questions that popped in my mind, the more anger and confusion swirled inside of me.
As I continued to process and work towards healing, I decide that I could do one of two things: I could continue to be angry and do nothing, or turn what I was feeling into a positive, and help others. I chose the latter.
So upon completing my project, I made the commitment to continue to volunteer at WCRC. This year, I decide to participate in Swim-A-Mile. It’s nearly impossible to find the right words to capture how powerful and uplifting this event was for me. The energy and positivity generated by each and every WCRC staff person, volunteer, swim participant and their loved ones created a force that even cancer cannot dim – the power of love and the celebration of life.
We swimmers definitely felt this love while in the pool. My sister and I had a small rooting crowd – our mom and a few friends. With each lap, our cheering section seemed to grow. My sister and I are no Michael Phelps or Dana Vollmer, so we did a combination of walking, line-dancing, and kick boarding the 46 laps that would make up 1 mile. While we showcased our novice swim skills, a woman walked by and said, “You are an inspiration.”
Then, from about lap 5 until the end, another woman grabbed a chair and posted at the end of the lane – shouting out words of encouragement. After lap 7: “Wooohooo – I’m counting on you! You can do it!” Lap 16: “You go girls, you got it! Keep going!” Lap 46: “Wooohooo!!! You did it!!!” In an hour and 1 minute, we swam, walked, kick-boarded and danced a mile!
I never got that woman’s name, but I thank her for the cheering, noise-making, pom-pom shaking and support. When I got out of the pool, she came up to me and gave me one of the biggest hugs ever. “Thank you, mija, I am so proud of you. I thank you so much.”
I am also partial to thinking that we got a little support from Up Above. About halfway through the mile, a butterfly floated above my sister and I. Perhaps it was a sign from granny that she was with us. I hope we made her proud.