Reason to strive
Chances are you’ve been there.
Considering one in seven Americans will lose their life to cancer, it’s a pretty safe bet that each of us have been, or will be, devastated by such a diagnosis delivered to a friend, a family member – or perhaps, you and me – at some point in our lives.
It is a scary thought.
But it doesn’t mean we should live in fear, even if we’re the ones on the receiving end of such soul-shaking news.
For many of us who will learn that our life is threatened by this nondiscriminating disease, the diagnosis does not mean the end of the story. For many, that day only marks the beginning of the battle.
Barbara Schmidt Millar fought that fight. At 34 years old, the Grass Valley native nurse and avid weekend warrior on the area’s volleyball courts was told she had breast cancer – a diagnosis that ended in death for nearly 40,000 American women within the past year.
But Barb won.
Through treatment and the strong support of her family, she beat breast cancer. She was a survivor. She had a real reason to celebrate each day ahead with her husband, Chas, and eventually – some five years later – being blessed by the birth of their baby boy, Stewart.
But as we said earlier, this damned disease doesn’t discriminate.
Barb’s breast cancer did not return. No, even more cruelly, she was stricken by an entirely new form of cancer to her body – a sarcoma of the brachial plexus.
She died in 1995 at the age of 42.
Her death – no, her life – and all that she went through … how she faced each morning with rare resolution to make the most of her time here … left behind not only a family full of pride, but also the inspiration necessary to someday win the battle for all of us.
But don’t take my word for it.
Karen Schmidt Ling left her hometown of Grass Valley shortly after Nevada Union High School’s Class of ’69 graduated.
Barb’s big sister headed for Reno and the University of Nevada in search of a degree in journalism. Once she decided, though, that she didn’t want to be a “nosy reporter,” she eventually ended up attaining a nursing degree in Oregon.
She made the most of that degree and her efforts in helping the sick by taking her skills as a traveling nurse to the Bahamas, Florida, Texas and Nevada, at one point even landing a job in Saudi Arabia – where she met the love of her life, Jeff Ling, a British mechanical engineer.
The two at one point decided to settle down and split the difference between their homelands by taking up residence in Orlando, Fla., where he worked for a power production company and she served in occupational health at Disney World.
It wasn’t long after their move that Karen learned of Barb’s breast cancer. And then, six years later, of the final fight for her life. Karen came back home.
“I came out and she went from walking to being a quadriplegic in a matter of two weeks,” Karen recalled.
As if saying goodbye to one sibling wasn’t enough, Karen also lost her brother Mark to liver disease within three weeks of Barb’s death.
To say it was a trying time for the Schmidt family doesn’t even come close.
But having friends of the family, like Cathy Anderson-Meyers, went a long way in helping them overcome the grief – at least to the point that they found something positive in their own personal loss.
Fascinated from afar
Karen returned to her life in Florida with Jeff and her career at the Magic Kingdom, but she certainly had Barb and her family back in Grass Valley on her mind.
And due to an idea dreamed up by Anderson-Meyers and 12 of Barb’s friends before she had passed, Karen knew that her little sister’s life was to be the subject of an annual celebration.
The baker’s dozen of Barb’s friends had decided to do a triathlon in her honor on Scotts Flat Lake. Anderson-Meyers had recently caught the bug for pushing her body to the limit by swimming, biking and running in such races. Barb, though in the thick of her final fight, always encouraged Anderson-Meyers as she trained for her first triathlon.
Now Barb would inspire others – many more than the original 13 had ever anticipated – through a “Celebration of Life” triathlon that soon became an annual affair. And with it comes funding for mammograms at the local hospital’s Breast Imaging Center, as well as a scholarship fund in her name.
“I remember Cathy came riding over and would stop by each day (during the final months of Barb’s life),” Karen said. “She is so enthusiastic. She’s got more energy than anybody I know.”
It wasn’t until year three that the friends took the show public, inviting area women to put themselves to a personal test through a triathlon.
Now, as they prepare the 10th annual Barbara Schmidt Millar Celebration of Life Triathlon, the original 13 will be joined on the Cascade Shores course by nearly 400 women – the most ever to participate.
“When it started to get up to 100 people, it was like ‘Oh wow!'” said Karen, who has never attended the triathlon.
“(At Disney) we couldn’t take vacation during the high (travel) season, and with my husband working as a manager at a power production company, he was always involved with hurricane season. So I’ve never been able to be here for it.”
Back home again
Karen will see her first Celebration of Life Triathlon Sunday, but only after dealing with another devastating loss.
She moved back to Grass Valley in April, after losing her husband to lung cancer.
“He never smoked a day in his life,” she said.
Considering that cancer has cheated her and her family out of so much, taking her loved ones away well before what one would expect to be their “time,” one could easily understand any hint of anger or bitterness in dealing with Jeff’s death.
But it’s clearly not there.
“You can sit and wallow in things or you can move on,” she said matter of factly. “My husband would want me to move on and not feel sorry for myself.
“And I think being here is easier for me, because I’m so busy.”
She’s busy with the beginning of a new life in the very place she began. She has a new home in Alta Sierra, a new car in the driveway and a new puppy – a 9 1/2-week old yellow Labrador named Ellie – with a heart-warming presence that Karen calls “puppy therapy.”
“I always wanted a yellow lab, but I always had other dogs,” she said, as Ellie dropped a new chew toy from her needle-like puppy teeth in favor of a guest’s leather satchel. “My last dog was a stray. I’d never paid for a dog before.
“My last dog passed a year before my husband got sick and everybody was telling me to get one, but it was one more thing to take care of. Now, seeing this, I know I never would have made it.”
Though Sunday will the first time she’s been on hand for the triathlon, her family is out there every year, celebrating their Barb.
Her parents, Don and Shirley Schmidt, sell raffle tickets each year. Stewart, who has traditionally given the “Go!” to each wave of triathletes, and Chas have been there since the beginning.
“I think it’s great that Mom and Dad have found something good from this,” Karen said. “Because you’re not supposed to outlive your children.”
But as we all know, tragically, that is sometimes the case. For that reason, Karen expects that her family’s emotions run high at the event each year – though, she’s not sure exactly what she’ll be feeling when she watches the women participate in an event that was created to celebrate the life of her little sister.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “I’ve thought a lot about it. I think it will be a little overwhelming.
“Cathy doesn’t want me doing anything this year. She says to ‘Just be there and take it all in.'”
And why don’t you?
This athletic event has become an annual staple in the western Nevada County sports scene, drawing a number of participants rivaled by few one-day events in the local calendar.
And though many of the women diving into the competition want to win, this community event is about so much more than the actual competition.
It’s not only about competing, testing one’s limits or even about the Schmidt family and their annual celebration of Barb’s life.
It’s about all of us, and what we can do to raise awareness, funding and the human spirit it will take to defeat a disease that has or will take someone we love from each and every one of us.
And maybe, it’s just about time, if you haven’t already, that we head out to Cascade Shores to support that incredibly wonderful effort.
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. He may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 477-4240.
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