For Mary Gyemi, walking in the Weekend to End Women’s Cancers is old hat – neither the 60-kilometre trek, nor the inevitable blisters, nor the minimum $2,000 fundraising goal, nor the threat of having to walk through sweltering heat or thunderous rainstorms intimidate her.
But after participating every year since the walk’s inception in 2003, this year promises to be a whole new experience for the south Etobicoke single mom of three; this year marks the first time Gyemi will proudly don the pink T-shirt of a cancer survivor.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought when I was doing all this fundraising over the years that the money I was raising would support me. Never,” said Gyemi, principal of Warren Park Junior Public School. “I always thought I was doing it for someone else, so it was kind of a surreal moment this year when I went, ‘Wow! This time, I’m doing it for me...And I get a pink T-shirt!’”
Since being diagnosed with breast cancer last November, Gyemi has endured eight months of energy-zapping surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments – yet she’s keen not to miss the 10th anniversary of the Shopper’s Drug Mart Walk to End Women’s Cancers this Sept. 8 and 9.
“It’s really an inspiring thing to go through. I walked by myself in my first year and met so many really interesting people and we shared so many stories,” she said. “Then there were the neighbourhoods we walked through – they did all kinds of things to support you whether it was standing and handing out bottles of water, or cheering, or holding up signs of encouragement. I’ll be honest, I cried a lot.”
Over the last decade, the annual weekend event has seen thousands of participants trekking 60 km over the course of two days with the goal of ending all women’s cancers. Since the first walk in 2003, more than $120 million has been raised for Princess Margaret Hospital, Canada’s leading cancer research centre.
What Gyemi’s looking forward to the most this year is participating in the walk’s survivors' ceremony with her two daughters, Jessica, 21, and Kathryn, 18, at her side.
“They celebrate the survivors so very much. In the past, when you finish the walk there’s this big huge cheering and everybody’s crying. You’re exhausted, you’re sore, you’ve got blisters all over your feet, and they give you these shirts – and it’s always pink for the survivors,” she said. “Then there’s this big ceremony at the end when they bring in all the survivors, and I get to be there. It will be totally inspirational.”
Not only inspirational, but also a chance to celebrate after enduring a tough eight months.
“It’s a bit of a rough gig, yeah, but I like to think that I’ve been incredibly lucky, to be honest,” she said of the relatively manageable toll the surgery and follow-up chemotherapy and radiation – which Gyemi is still in the middle of – have had on her. “The first week, when they give you the (chemo) drug, that’s probably the worst gig. It’s at its strongest in your body, it’s doing what it needs to do, and it really knocks you out physically. And I think emotionally, you know, you sit there and think ‘oh Lord, is this ever going to end?’
“And then the second week you start feeling a little bit better, and then the third week you’re feeling really strong, and then, of course, they do it to you all over again.”
What helped Gyemi cope during those trying times was the overwhelming support from her daughters, son Daniel, 15, neighbours, and the school community from Warren Park Junior Public School, where she plans to return to work this September.
While her kids have helped out wherever and whenever they can, Gyemi’s neighbours have taken over the family’s lawn mowing and garbage and recycling duties, and the teachers, students and parents from Warren Park have all given of their time and attention to provide her with the emotional and nutritional sustenance she’s needed to carry on.
“Emotionally, the school probably would have been the best place for me to be (while I was sick), but health-wise it wasn’t possible,” she lamented. “But the staff and the parents and the kids brought school to me, which was really nice.”
While her colleagues brought flowers and became her personal ‘meals on wheels’ service, Gyemi received regular check-up phone calls and gifts from the parent community, and a steady flow of uplifting letters from her 160 supportive students – each and every one of which Gyemi has made a point of personally responding to.
Despite all the turmoil and uncertainty in her life since the cancer diagnosis, Gyemi – ever the educator – sees the experience as a learning opportunity.
“There’s all these great lessons that come if you can just pay attention to them while going through this whole thing – listening to your body and not doing too much, and enjoying things that you may or may not have enjoyed before,” she said. “It’s funny, because people talk about this phoenix rising thing that happens to you, and it kind of does.”
To support Gyemi at this year’s Shopper’s Drug Mart Weekend to End Women’s Cancers, go to www.endcancer.ca, click on the green “donate” tab, then type in Gyemi’s name into the search field.