Sometimes—if you listen to your mother and the people you grew up with—you can go home again.
On Jan. 12, 2007, I found what would turn out to be a malignant cancer in my left testicle. I went through surgery, radiation, missed three months of work, gained 20 pounds—and became an instant fan of Lance Armstrong. I survived, but I went through hell, emotionally and physically. When it was clear I was OK, my mom decided that maybe I hadn't been through enough yet, so she signed me up for something called the Relay For Life, a cancer fundraising walk in my Appalachian hometown of Millboro, Va. In my post-cancer euphoria, I agreed, and one warm spring weekend I drove from Washington, D.C., with my two kids, Grace and Joseph.
When I found my mom on the lawn of the host school, she handed me a packet that included a bright purple T-shirt. "You need to wear this so they'll know you're a survivor," she said. I changed the subject. We made small talk for a while, and I went to the concession stand looking for comfort in the form of something southern fried. My mom started to get restless; the march time was approaching, and she could see I had cold feet. Finally, I broke it to her: "Mom, I've decided I'll just watch. These are people who still have life-threatening illnesses, and I don't deserve to walk with them." Truth is, I was just embarrassed.
This didn't go over well. My mom is 5 foot 3, but somehow she manages to tower over her husband and two sons, and we're all taller than 6 foot. She pointed her finger at me and said: "Now you listen to me. You had a legitimate cancer! You get that shirt on this instant and get out there and march!" "Yes, ma'am," I said.
I prayed that the shirt wouldn't fit, but it did, and it turns out that at a cancer walk, the stars are the people in the purple, the survivor color. I was like Frosty the Snowman putting on his magic hat. I had VIP status. People looked at me differently, and it made me extremely uncomfortable. "Look! There's one!" they all seemed to say. "Isn't that Bill and Joyce's boy?"
All too soon, the megaphone person announced, "All survivors need to gather inside the school!" So I went in, milling around with my purple-shirted brethren in what looked like a room usually filled with happy country kids eating Tater Tots and drinking chocolate milk. I wanted to be transported back to that age, back to the good ol' days when tall boys like me were tall enough to jump up and write our names on the old cafeteria's asbestos ceiling. (And I wonder how I got cancer?)
But it was 2007, not 1972, and I felt unworthy, and young, even though I was in my mid-40s. Most of the survivors were much older than I was, and a lot of them knew me when I was a kid and a reporter on the local newspaper. The men huddled on one side of the room, the women on the other. I found myself in a tight circle of guys, and, naturally, we compared cancers, like old soldiers comparing battle scars. When my turn came, I said, "testicular," which I always say in a hushed tone. I've watched a lot of men's faces when I lay that word on them, and they all do the same thing: involuntarily squint an eye, quickly inhale, then flash a Thank-God-That's-Not-Me look while simultaneously performing the surreptitious in-pocket jewel check.
The hour was growing near for our march. The idea was that we'd all walk around the temporary track a few times as a group and the town folk would stand along the edge and watch us. When you walked near your family or an old friend, they'd clap and yell until you lapped back around—and then they'd do it again. It was sort of like what a shy person like me might think going to hell would be like, only there you wouldn't have to wear purple t-shirts.
Before it all started, I looked through the school window off into the distance at the beautiful green mountains of my childhood and wondered how fast I could get into the woods and get away. I am a pretty fast runner, even after being weakened by the radiation, and I guessed I could bolt out the back door and make it to a nearby hollow in about five minutes. I could live as a hermit for a few years. Maybe my cowardice wouldn't be remembered when I came back to civilization around 2013.
But it was too late to run. The doors swung open and we marched out into the sunlight. One of the nice women who was running the walk stood over a tiny boom box perched on a chair near the track, her finger poised above the play button. "Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no," I thought. "What could it be?"
She pushed the button, a tinny sound came out, and I immediately recognized the song: "At first I was afraid! I was petrified! Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side …" It was "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor. Now, not only am I trapped out in broad daylight, in public, in my purple T-shirt, walking around in circles with people clapping at me, but I'm having a hard time not walking in time to the music. The only line I could identify with was: "Just turn around now … 'cause you're not welcome anymore!"
I wasn't the only one suffering small humiliations on this day. Earlier my dad and brother were talking when an elderly neighbor lady walked up. My father is a southern gentleman of the old school. He is a man of few words, and if he had his druthers, one of those words would not be "testicular." That goes double if he's talking to a woman. "What kind was it?" she asked. My father had to answer. (To save us from this situation in the future, my brother Chris came up with the euphemism "man-area cancer," which I prefer in every way to that other word.)
When darkness fell, and I'd suffered through the promised laps, I sat on the ground with my family beneath the moon. We listened to the roll call of those locals who had died from cancer—names of old friends and familiar mountain surnames—lilting off into the cool night air. Brown paper candle luminaries representing victims formed a circle of light on the ground around the track, and people took turns reading as photos of the fallen were projected on a movie screen.
It was then that I realized something profound about my day. It wasn't humiliating. It wasn't cheesy, or corny, but just right. My mom was right to sign me up. The people that really know me—the ones who watched me grow up, who coached me in little league and went to the Presbyterian church with my family—were here for me and all of the rest of the men and women who'd lived through their own lonely cancer hell. It mattered to them that I was still here. That is no small thing. And that realization made me feel so at home and safe there in that place, sitting on the grass in my purple T-shirt, as the images of my old friends flickered on the screen, their faces made blurry by the tears in my eyes and the fleeting passage of time.
Tuttle is an editor in NEWSWEEK’s Washington bureau and lives in Alexandria, Va.