At 2 p.m. on July 20, I stopped work, grabbed my walking gear, and wrapped a blue band around my near-bald head. What awaited me was a monumental trek that would mark the end of my cancer treatments — and the Walk With Me project I had created to get me through it. For six weeks, I made the 5-mile roundtrip walk to and from daily radiation appointments with the most amazing array of people from all parts of my life.
All told, we walked nearly 150 miles through heat waves and even a tropical storm on round-trip treks from my Cambridge apartment to Mass General Hospital in Boston’s West End. My first boss from 20 years ago drove up from Connecticut to walk with me during a thunderstorm. A friend from Minneapolis drove halfway across the country. And a neighbor with whom I had never properly conversed came out in the midsummer heat.
What I found by walking with family, friends, current and former colleagues, neighbors, and lifelong mentors is that the walk was more than a commute to rid my body of cancer. It was a pilgrimage we all needed right now to be reminded of the togetherness that guides us through the most challenging times.
I started thinking about walking to radiation appointments soon after my diagnosis. On Jan. 6, as chaos descended on the US Capitol building, my own world began to unravel. That afternoon, I would get the call that would change everything: the lump that the doctor had found on my left breast three weeks earlier was malignant.
Within days, I found myself heading into the hospital — one of my first outings since being in near-isolation for the last year. During that year, I spent a lot of my time running solo along the Charles River. I was motivated by an online goal group organized by Abby, my best friend since high school, which consisted mostly of her elite runner friends — the kind of people who run up Mount Washington while pregnant or run 50-mile races. I could barely go a mile, but they supported me, and I was inspired by their determination. I worked up from 1 mile to 3 to, eventually, 10 miles on Dec. 31, 2020 — six days before my diagnosis. I would soon need to call on this newfound grit to get through the fight of my life.
At my first medical appointment, I walked into the nondescript hospital room and waited for the team of doctors to come in — my oncologist, a surgeon, and a radiation oncologist. Behind them, a sign hung prominently on the wall: no visitors allowed. This appointment, and the nearly 50 more visits I would make over the next seven months, would all have to be alone. Getting cancer is isolating at any time, but it takes on a whole new level during a pandemic.
To keep fear and worry from overtaking me, I needed to get creative. Pushing myself to keep running through three months of chemo treatments had helped me to feel happier, stronger, and more confident in my body’s resilience. I wanted to keep going through the next phase — the 30 rounds of daily radiation — but I wasn’t sure I could do it on my own. I was starting to feel more tired and drained, but the grind of going to the hospital every day, of putting on the “patient” sticker, of changing into the gown and sitting in the room with other patients, would be more than a physical hurdle.
Since the pandemic had moved everything else outdoors, I thought I could do the same with getting myself to the hospital. I made a spreadsheet with my Monday-through-Friday appointments and sent out a message to see if people I knew would walk with me. I wanted to take back my summer from cancer and I thought the movement would be a good way to battle the fatigue. The slots started to fill up quickly.
On my first walk, Abby joined me. Even though I was heading to an appointment that would be zapping me with nuclear medicine, we laughed the whole way. It was 95 degrees and I was exhausted already, but each day, as another person showed up in sneakers at my door, I felt motivated and excited. On the second day, a woman I had met only a handful of times had signed up. As we walked, I learned about her growing up in Pakistan and immigrating to the United States, and I recalled my days living in Mumbai. By day three, I was on a roll when my good friend Megan showed up with her two toddlers in a stroller. It was another scorcher, and I suggested we take the T home, but she insisted she was there to walk with me.
On each walk, we headed down my leafy mid-Cambridge street over to Broadway, past a raucous playground, past new construction near Kendall Square, and over the Longfellow Bridge as we paused to take in the view that can only be captured on foot. Walking gave me strength, purpose, and connection during this most isolating of experiences. Before heading into my appointment, I handed off the guest book — a teal, leatherbound notebook — that I asked each person to sign, recording memories of our walk as well as their favorite songs to add to my Walk With Me playlist. On the way home, we sometimes chose a different route, opting for the more scenic way, along the Boston side of the Charles, and stopping for ice cream or at the splash park, if kids were with us.
Two of my best friends joined me for my very last walk. Messages from friends around the world — Ireland, Italy, France, and different parts of the United States — rang out with “walking with you in spirit.” My radiation oncologist, Dr. Ho, would meet us for the final stretch. Before we headed out the door, we toasted to mark the occasion and then chatted along the route about everything but cancer as we made our way to Mass General for the last time.
The summer of 2021 was not dominated by cancer, despite the hours we trekked to rid my body of it. What I’ll remember most is long walks and long conversations — and the lengths people will go to to show up when you need them most.
Carlin Carr is a writer and editor and the director of operations and outreach at the Boston Book Festival. She can be reached at email@example.com.