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Bonnie Blair on what she’s learned from her family’s struggles with cancer

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Updated: April 24, 2013 12:25PM

Large families like mine tend to have higher chances of getting certain diseases, and for us, that disease has been cancer. My father, brother and sister have all succumbed to various types of cancer.

My dad was a heavy smoker, and had quit for a while before he gradually started smoking again. He started at a young age when they didn’t know about the risks of smoking. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1987 and died two years later — on Christmas Day, of all days.

My dad was very athletic and always involved in my skating competitions. When I was 12, growing up in Champaign, I remember him introducing me as “My daughter, Bonnie, who’s going to be in the Olympics.” I remember looking at him and thinking, “Is he nuts?” He was a man of few words, so when he said something, you really listened. His words planted a seed that never left my mind.

Going to the Olympics was his dream before it became mine. By the time I was participating in the 1988 Olympic Games, he had undergone chemotherapy, and it was a difficult time for us. So, for him to be there in Calgary — and to be able to show me the smile on his face when I won a gold medal — was my gift back to him.

When my brother Rob was in his 30s, he had a seizure, which led to the diagnosis of a tumor on the left side of his brain. He underwent radiation and oral chemotherapy, but the tumor was inoperable. In 1994, I was named Sports Illustrated Woman of the Year, and I received fan mail from a girl who had undergone successful brain surgery. But the same doctor was able to remove only half of my brother’s tumor.

When I think of my brother, I remember his unbelievably positive attitude — he loved life. The smile on his face would light up the room even on his darkest day. His memory inspired me to train harder, even when it got difficult.

When my sister Mary was diagnosed with leukemia, they gave her six months to live, then five years, but she made it to 10. Mary’s spirit was so strong. She died just last month, on my birthday, though she’d just undergone a bone marrow transplant. Science had come so far in those 10 years, and marrow donation is much easier than it used to be. While none of my sisters nor I was a match for Mary, I hope I can be a match for someone else in the future and have the opportunity to save a life.

Cancer’s reach goes far beyond just my family — it affects so many of us. So it’s so important to help advance the science behind the cures by supporting the American Cancer Society, which has been involved in nearly every major cancer research breakthrough. I invite you to help the American Cancer Society finish the fight by joining us at the lakefront during the 42nd Annual Walk and Roll on April 27, where I’ll be speaking alongside Paralympian Tatyana McFadden at the opening ceremonies. The goal of this year’s walk, which starts and ends at Soldier Field and loops past Grant Park, is to raise approximately $1 million statewide to help people stay well and get well, and to fund and find new cures.

What I’ve learned from my own journey, and from my family’s experience with cancer, is how important it is to stay positive and move forward. Not every day is going to be perfect; that’s life. But staying positive is going to get you to the next day.

To register for the American Cancer Society Walk and Roll and for event information, visit Walkroll
.org or call (312) 279-7261. Saturday, April 27,
$15 pre-event, $20 day-of per participant.

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