I met her in a sea of long black robes and mortarboards. I’d just come down from the stage, where I’d had the privilege of speaking in front of 3,000 people at The Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio. It was June 29, 2008 and finally, after four years, the birth of my son and a battle with breast cancer, I was about to receive my master’s degree from Antioch University McGregor. It’s a day that was a bit surreal because there had been a time not so long ago when I thought this day might not ever come — in the days following my breast cancer diagnosis.
But it did. And I did it. Not only did I walk across the stage to receive my degree, but I did something that just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought possible. I told my story, my family’s story, the story of the BRCA 1 gene, before a crowd of a few thousand. (To read the Speech, “The E-Turn in Life: Being the Difference” in its entirety, see the Speech button at the top of the homepage.)
I shared just how our gene-positive status had impacted the women in my family, from my grandmother to my mother, my sisters, my niece. I shared the power and the wisdom that can be extracted from even the most difficult circumstances life throws at you — and that I do, indeed, believe it is my responsibility to reach as many people with my story as I can. I never imagined for a moment that some of my fellow BRCA 1 and 2 peers were sitting in the audience, listening to my words.
Then something even more amazing happened. I returned to my seat and the music for the processional began. A long line of graduates in flowing gowns and tassles passed me en route to the stage.
Suddenly, a young African-American woman stepped out of line. She walked the few short steps to my seat, stood in front of me, removed her cap, revealing her bald head, and whispered, “BRCA 1″ in my ear. She gave me a hug, then quickly replaced her cap and made her way up the stairs and across the stage.
Following her lead, graduates began to step out of line on their way to the stage, hugging me and sharing a few quick words of inspiration. The outpouring of love and appreciation from my fellow graduates — many of whom were strangers — was one of the most amazing and powerful moments of my life.
I caught up with that young woman following the ceremony. Her name is Rhonda Traylor and she is BRCA 1 positive. On that day, she was in the midst of her battle against breast cancer.
“I didn’t know if I would be able to make it across that stage,” she later told me, as she was so fatigued by the chemotherapy treatments. “They had a wheelchair ready for me, in case I needed help. But I was determined to make it!” And she did.
Rhonda and I still keep in touch and I am thrilled to say that she has finished her treatment and is doing well. She is an amazing person — bright, funny, glass-is-half-full, even on the darkest of days. And how ironic that, that day, Rhonda thought I was the hero for my willingness to share my story.
But I, I have a different version of that day. It’s the story of a young woman fighting breast cancer who willed herself to make it up the steep steps and across that long stage to receive her diploma. That is a true hero. To Rhonda Traylor I say, “You go, girl!”