Today — October 15th — is my mom’s birthday. We’re interrupting your regularly scheduled sports column for a dose of perspective. Melinda Murtaugh’s birthday has never been more poignant, as it falls precisely in the middle of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And Mom was diagnosed last December with breast cancer.
If NFL players can wear pink shoes and gloves this month, the least I can do is bring some metaphorical pink to “My Seat.” When the NFL turned to breast cancer so visibly a few years ago, the mass gesture tore down some walls of perception that had somehow insulated “a man’s world” from a disease that kills in a variety of ways, but victimizes mostly women. The fact is, every last player to don an NFL helmet was, has been, and will be influenced by the women in his life. (Count the number of “Hi Dad!” gestures you see from a touchdown-scoring tailback.) Pink became manly when Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers were suddenly sacking quarterbacks while wearing the color.
In terms of competing, no sport compares with the battle to defeat breast cancer. This goes for the collective efforts of millions around the world. And it especially goes for the individual fights being waged — often quite privately — by women (and yes, men) who would consider a blind-side hit from Brian Urlacher a welcome alternative to a sixth or seventh chemotherapy treatment. Sports come with a scoreboard or a stopwatch. Games are clean, with an obvious start and a clear finish. Breast cancer invades without warning, in multiple forms, with a different kind of “game” required for every patient, depending on age, body type, allergies, and any number of variables no studio analyst could fully grasp, let alone describe.
My mom is not an athlete. She never was. A native of east Tennessee, she cheered heartily for the Volunteers on fall Saturdays. And she fell in love with a die-hard St. Louis Cardinal fan. But Mom was in the brainpower line when athletic genes were being distributed. Her experience with competition has a foundation of spelling bees, not golf tees.
But then came her cancer diagnosis. And my sister and I — who thought we knew her well — came face to face with a monster-killer. As Liz and I choked up during phone conversations or researched “lobular invasive” with tears in our eyes, our mom did the equivalent of selecting battle armor. A wig. A few caps (stylish, mind you). A bucket that would fit near her bed in case nausea landed a punch or two. Bill Belichick prepares for the Jets. Cancer patients prepare for cold sweats.
The best part about today — and the best birthday gift my mom could expect — is that she now carries the title of Cancer Survivor. (The tag deserves caps. I intend to stick with them for good.) After a successful lumpectomy, four months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation, Mom now schedules check-ups with her oncologist to verify that the disease remains vanquished. There’s no off-season in the fight against cancer. No Hot Stove League to discuss the minutiae of the challenge. Once a part of you (and your family), it’s in the room for life.
And this is what makes my mom such a great sports story. She’s a champion of sorts, but one every other woman (or yes, man) who has confronted breast cancer can cheer. Her team colors make up a spectrum well beyond any rainbow. She’s a new kind of hero to her entire family. (The picture you see here was taken last December, during a visit with two of her four grandchildren in Seattle.) She’s identified her opponent, sized it up, and executed her game plan with every drop of energy — physical and mental — her body will allow. No scoreboard needed.
This year in the U.S. alone, 200,000 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 people will die of the disease. Please consider supporting one “game” we all want to win together. And remember, the Memphis-MidSouth Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure will be held (for the 20th year) on Saturday, October 27th at Saddle Creek in Germantown.