This past weekend, I was honoured to be the Participant of Hope at the Fraser Valley Relay for Life for the Canadian Cancer Society. I got to share my story, so here it is!
This is a story about Dungeons & Dragons. And about Fundraising. Little of both.
The first time I fundraised for the Canadian Cancer Society, I was 12. My Pathfinder group sold daffodils outside the local IGA as our service project. At the time, I didn’t directly know anyone who had cancer. Cancer was just the Big Bad Evil Guy in the books I’d read growing up. It was something that other people, old people, got but nobody really talked about. I remember thinking how these pretty yellow flowers looked sitting in their water buckets just waiting to be chosen. I couldn’t figure out how something so cheerful and delicate could fight this Big Bad.
My senior year of highschool, I joined our school’s Mission: Possible crew, a group that was dedicated to raising funds and awareness at the school level. We sold yellow ribbons and pins in the foyer at lunch time and after school. Thanks to the club I learned more about what cancer was, that it wasn’t just old people who got it, but I definitely still felt like it happened to people I didn’t know. It was still just a storytale.
And then cancer came home. As I was studying for provincial exams and worrying about post-secondary, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My parents said it was Serious and yet Not Serious in the way that parents do, that he’d only need surgery and recovery. Surgery happened in June, so you can be sure that I studied for my exams under his watchful and very bored eye as he recovered at home.
The next time I fundraised, I did it for my Dad.
I was in university and my Dad’s work was sponsoring the Father’s Day Prostate Cancer walk. Team For Pete’s Sake came together and every step of that charity 5k walk had meaning because now I was fundraising for someone I loved. Cancer seemed like it could still be the Big and Scary Monster, but a little less so. My Dad was doing well, we were fundraising to ensure other Dads didn’t have to walk that path too. It was all going to be okay.
Big Bad laughed.
My senior year in university, Big Bad came home again. This time it was my mom, diagnosed with breast cancer. Her lumpectomy, the chemo, the radiation, her bravery, her pain, her courage, her will to fight back: now the Big Bad felt real. It was there everyday, showing me what real big and scary looked like. But my mom showed me what bravery looks like, where the adventurer picks up their sword every day and just. Keeps. Going.
The next time Team for Pete’s Sake did the Father’s Day walk, every step meant that much more. I was doing it for both my parents.
And then 2017 happened. My husband Blair and I not-so-lovingly refer to it as “The Year From Hell”. It was a year that started with my husband being in two serious car accidents and ended with me being diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. At 31 and a newlywed, cancer was not on my character sheet. I can still remember that moment when I heard those words, “You have cancer.” I was at the Breast Health Clinic in Abbotsford and the nurse had lovely black hair with bright blue streaks. I went numb. I could hardly breathe. All I could do was stare across the room at my mom as my brain processed the fact that Big Bad had now come for me.
All those years, all those kilometers walked, all those ribbons and flowers sold… was I doing it for me all along?
But also no.
If you’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, or D&D as it’s often called, it’s a tabletop game where the players work together to tell a story. The Game Moderator acts as the story narrator, setting the scene for the other players and giving them opportunities for adventure. The other players take on the role of the heroes of the story, needing to interact and work together in order to succeed and ultimately tell an awesome tale. While I was undergoing cancer treatments, the game allowed Me and Blair to connect with our friends on a regular basis, we were able to play online over Zoom when I was immunocompromised, and it allowed us to step away from “real life” for a bit as we wove tales of what our characters would do.
One of the big elements of D&D is that when the Big Bad Evil Guy arrives, the adventurer’s rise up to fight back. The Big Bad had come for me, and like the characters we get to play in our favourite game, it was our turn to roll.
Across that room in the Breast Health Clinic my mom looked at me and nodded. That one look told me I could do this. That I wouldn’t be alone. That it didn’t matter how small and fragile and scared I was feeling. Because I had my Mom and Dad, warriors who had tread this path before me. I had my husband, who has the biggest shoulders to carry me–emotionally, and yes there were times he had to literally carry me. I had my friends, who donned their armor and brought their swords to fight next to me. I had the Canadian Cancer Society and the connections I made with others who were on this journey, too.
In 2018, Team Andrea’s Adventurers participated in our first Relay for Life. We fundraised for me, yes, but also for every person who has been in our shoes. Because in Dungeon and Dragons when one party member is attacked, we all roll for initiative.
For a while, COVID-19 tried to be the scariest monster on the table. But just like the Big Bad Evil Guy in stories, cancer doesn’t stop just because there’s another monster around. Over the pandemic, Andrea’s Adventurers Charity RPG Weekend launched online. Nine Game Moderators and 30+ players played nine games of Dungeons and Dragons over 40 hours and three days. We raised $10,000 by telling stories together. When such a kind, caring community teams up with you for this common goal—people who are willing to do shots of Hot Sauce…numerous shots of hot sauce on what is essentially live television–I truly feel like one of the brave adventurers in the stories we tell.
In 2021, my mom was diagnosed with cancer again. My mom continues to fight with a fierness found in most prairie folk and wise warriors. She is the bravest, kindest, strongest, most loving person I know. Even in her most pain-filled days, she always has joy and love to share. Those are the weapons she wields to tell Big Bad that it hasn’t won yet.
This past weekend was our third year running our online D&D event. On Sunday as I thanked all my volunteers, I cried happysad tears. I was reminded of those cheerful daffodils from my very first fundraiser. I finally understood why something so delicate could fight a Big Bad like cancer. Because it’s a reminder that no matter how fragile I feel, I can be brave, too. That with every flower, ribbon, and step, my adventuring party is with me. And that together, we will win this fight against cancer.
Today is for you Mom.