Deep in the long listing of the RiverFront Run finishing times in the Sports section in today’s newspaper is a seemingly innocuous result:
A 167th-place finish in Albany’s biggest 5-kilometer race doesn’t warrant a huge headline, especially in the Sports section. But a few hours after she and I participated in Saturday’s race, I sat down with Sabrina Powell and her husband, Bobby, to get the story behind the story of a 5K finish that anyone would be proud of.
“My personal journey with cancer began Aug. 30, 2000,” Sabrina said. “I was 37 years old and had a 6-year-old son in the first grade when I was told that I had breast cancer.”
Sabrina is my age – 46 — and widely known throughout Albany. I met her when our sons played baseball together. Andrew is an athletic superstar – a master in the field and on the court. He’s fast and he’s strong. But it’s his kind disposition and charisma that won me over as the bench coach for the Dixie Albany Yankees. Clearly, like most kids, Andrew – who is adopted — is the wonderful human being that he is because of his parents.
At the ballpark, Sabrina is the liveliest of the fans. It doesn’t matter who is at bat or on the mound or which team they are on; they’re all her kids. She’s watched them grow up. As for Bobby, who works in radio sales, he’s rock-solid intellectually and emotionally. I always wished I were more like him, until Saturday, when I got to know him better. Now I want to be just like him.
“Talk about being scared – that is an understatement! I don’t even know if there is a word in the English language that can describe everything I felt. But, I do remember the day and the place and the moment and the second that I was told ‘you have cancer.’” I was flooded with emotion — sorrow, despair, depression – but most of all there was anger. I was angry at everyone, the doctor, God and even myself. I am such a control freak and somehow cancer just didn’t fit into my plans. It wasn’t on my calendar and if it ain’t on my calendar it is not taking place. How could this have happened? I have no history of any type of cancer in my family, much less breast cancer. Why me? My poor body had already endured years of infertility testing, surgeries and treatments. It wasn’t my turn I argued with God! I already had my cross to bear. I endured three surgeries, 16 rounds of chemotherapy over 6 months. I lost all my hair. My husband still tells people that it’s not many men that get to sleep with a bald woman. And, his sense of humor about such a terrible topic keeps me sane!”
I wanted to better understand how they do it – Bobby, Sabrina and Andrew. How does Bobby stay so, well, together? How does Sabrina go out and face the world. She confronts death daily, will never grow hair again, and now has to deal every minute of the day with the piercing pain caused indirectly by her breast cancer via arthritis and a damaged sciatic nerve. Hell, due to the radiation treatments, she even lost some of her hearing. Bobby, doesn’t that make you angry? Aren’t you wondering when enough is going to be enough? And how in the world does Andrew, 14, deal with the reality that the reality is that his mother is lucky to be alive. As it turns out, day in and day out, each of the Powells is helping one another through the family’s journey.
“On Mother’s Day, my then 8 year-old-son and his class were asked to write a story about what a mother is. I will never, ever forget what he wrote. “My mommy is strong, she beat cancer, she won the war! Talk about ripping your heart out! And, not a week later this same child who had captured my heart with his eloquence, wrote down the words, “cancer sucks.” For a few minutes I was embarrassed and angry. And then it came to me – I realized what insight of this precious child! He summed up everything that cancer was for me in two words. And, he had every right to say and feel what he did because, you see, he went through that whole experience with me and he was correct. Cancer does suck.”
OK, so Sabrina hasn’t always been so accepting of her disease. She hasn’t always been this positive, this radiating, as beautiful as she is now as she sits on the couch of her family’s comfortable home being the bubbly Sabrina that my wife has gotten to know through Albany Run/Walk, a marathon-training program.
“Since I began running, I have run two marathons, five half marathons, and too many smaller races to mention. The week before I left on my very first marathon in Chicago, a co-worker of mine gave me a beautiful breast cancer awareness bracelet. And, on the inside of the dangling heart was the message, “Trust your journey.” As I started the last mile of my marathon on a beautiful day – not too hot, not too cold — the tears began to flow down my face … and continued until I crossed the finish line. I was so overwhelmed. God had helped me heal enough to run – and not just to run but to endure. Every time I felt like quitting that day, I kept saying over and over again the words, “Trust your journey. Trust your journey.” Did I win that race? Well I wasn’t the fastest runner that day, but I did win. You see with everything that I had been through – I finished. And that in itself was a victory!”
‘ONLY ANGELS GET CANCER’
“Early on in my treatment, there were times that I was in incredible pain from chemotherapy. Every bone in my body ached just when I moved. It took every ounce of energy I had just to walk up or down the stairs. I even prayed to God to make the pain stop – whatever that cost. Some of you have never felt pain like that before … And, God-willing I hope that you never will … I remember totally losing it once because I couldn’t find my pain medicine and I knew I couldn’t get through the evening without it. My husband just wrapped his arms around me like a big teddy bear and held me and rocked me as I sobbed. Why, why? And he replied, “I don’t know, honey, maybe only angels get cancer.”
I cried several times during our 30-minute session. I was hoping Bobby couldn’t tell. I’m crying now because I know the rest of the story.
“Fast forward six years and two weeks to Sept. 16, 2006. I again heard the words I didn’t want to hear. “You have cancer.” But, it is not in my breast – my mammogram was perfect. No – there was a silver dollar sized tumor on my lung. And the next day we found a spot on my spine that had a hole in it and three watermelon-sized seeds in my brain. So my breast cancer had metastasized to these other places in my body. I was being invaded and yet another cross to bear! My career, my running, my whole life changed in a heartbeat. That day – Friday afternoon I asked Bobby to drive me to an open field and let me just scream as loud as I could! What he did for me was hold me and let me cry the whole weekend and grieve. Then it was time to fight again – a different fight – much worse than the first time. A broken port meant an extra surgery. Another cross. This time I endured 26 rounds of chemo, brain radiation and a hysterectomy. And — this is one of the best parts — I have run two half-marathons since February.”
A SONG OF UNDERSTANDING
I wanted to ask and wasn’t sure if I would. But Sabrina saved me and provided the answer.
“Yes. I feel guilty. I feel terribly, terribly guilty every day for what I have put my family through. For what I’m putting my family through. But Bobby and the running group and my friends and my faith make me realize that this is happening for a reason. There is a purpose. And yes, everyday I am afraid. I am afraid that my cancer will return to my body again. But, I have chosen to get up every day even though I am afraid. Cancer has changed my life – before cancer I took my existence, my life for granted. Now when I look at a sunrise or sunset, it is definitely more brilliant than before. And, when Andrew hits the baseball these days, it seems to go much farther in my eyes. Life is a gift and when I come in last in a race it doesn’t matter – because I have already won just by being able to run. Life – it is a gift no matter how many crosses I have to bear. Enjoy each day, each hour and each moment. They are a gift from God.”
At the funeral last month of Russell Martin, a local businessman and musician who taught and mentored children at First United Methodist Church, the Bread classic Everything I Own was performed. Andrew and the other young people whose lives Russell touched sat together during the service. Later, Sabrina walked by Andrew’s room. He was playing the song over and over and over.
Is there someone you know,
you’re loving them so,
but taking them all for granted.
You may lose them one day,
someone takes them away,
and they don’t hear the words you long to say
I would give anything I own,
Give up my life, my heart, my home.
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again.
Just to touch you once again.
“That’s when I realized, it hit me that Andrew really does know exactly what’s happening with me. It’s been all this time and some things we really haven’t talked about directly. It was a beautiful moment, really.”
Andrew has watched his mother battle for her life for eight years. But now, he really gets it; he understands that he and his dad are infinitely fortunate to still have mom around. Healing is a process and it doesn’t happen in solitude. It’s a race to the finish line the Powells are running together.
(Kevin Hogencamp is publisher of The Albany Journal. This article was originally published in on Oct. 8, 2008.)