by Sophia Garber, 4K for Cancer Team San Francisco 2017
The first time I met Cristal was in a small room as we sat around a circle and I heard why she was embarking on this cross country bike ride.
She told us with all the confidence in the world that she was doing this because she wanted to show other young adults with cancer that it’s not the end for them.
That there is life after cancer and if she can make it 4,000 miles on a bike, so could they.
That time and every time after that, it was an honor to hear Cristal’s story.
While on 4K, Cristal struggled at first. She was less than a year out from treatment and she had to figure out how to push herself with her new limitations.
The first day, I remember biking up to her group and finding her crumpled on the ground out of exhaustion.
I had no idea if she would make it across the country, or if any of us would for that matter. That mental strength was always there and it wasn’t long before her physical strength caught up.
It seems so funny thinking back to that version of Cristal that I saw on the first day because by the time we got to San Francisco, that version of her was long gone.
As the miles past, Cristal gained strength, mentally and physically. She found her place on our team and on the road; pedaling harder and faster than any of us, learning how to motivate herself and others. I deemed her the “Hill Doctor” for her insane ability to push up hills.
There was one day when I was feeling sluggish the last 5 miles of our days ride and out of nowhere, I heard Cristals pedals squeaking fast as she sped up past me. She was a rocket on hills.
In early August, we got to celebrate Cristal’s cancer-versary. I watched her fill up with emotions. I remember her telling me that she just wasn’t sure she would ever make it to one year cancer free and the fear that it would be her only one.
Cristal would talk to us about the realities of cancer. Not just sugar coating her journey. The truth of the matter was that it wasn’t over.
Cancer doesn’t just come and go and leave no mark. It erodes deep carvings, emotional and physical that don’t go away when you hear the words “remission”.
I learned so much from Cristal that summer about what it means to fight, up hills and against death. Cristal had done it all.
Cristal finished the cross country bike ride a different person than the girl who started.
That day meant to world to all of us, but I think it was something deeper for Cristal. For her it was reclaiming herself, it was giving cancer the middle finger, it was finding connections with a team that would never let her down.
The following April, Cristal’s cancer came back. It took us all by surprise. Each of our teammates dealt with it in a different way, but all of us sprung into action.
This bout with cancer would be different for her and we would make sure of it. We couldn’t cure it, we couldn’t do the fighting for her, but we could pour out gallons of support.
This time, we would make sure she never felt alone. Our team, spread out across the country sent her packages, trinkets, we facetimed her, made her a “Because of Cristal” video, dedicated our days, runs, rides, races challenges to her.
Only a few weeks after her re-diagnosis, I was with Cristal in Denver as she was doing a presentation out there. It was the first time I saw her after she had been rediagnosed.
It had been so hard for me to comprehend that my friend and my teammate was going through treatment again. I think the idea of Cancer inside of her made me forget all the strength that I had seen within her the past summer and all I could think of was her pain.
When that goofy, Chicago girl ran to me in the airport, I was instantly reminded that this was no ordinary girl, this was Cristal. The girl who forced me to do a mock spin class one day in California as we rode up killer hills.
The girl who demolished an astonishing amount of white rice and nutella. The girl who sang “the Climb” with me at the top of her lungs in Colorado.
Cristal with some of her 4K teammates at the 2018 Blue Jeans Ball, after receiving the Young Adult Fight Award.
Nothing about that weekend was easy for Cristal. She had just started chemo and the traveling and presenting was tough. We sat in our hotel room one night and I got to ask all the questions that had been buzzing around my head since she told us her cancer was back.
Most importantly, I got to be with my friend. I remember her telling me that she didn’t know how to deal with no longer being a cancer survivor anymore, but a cancer patient.
That broke my heart. To me, Cristal is the very definition of a survivor, of cancer, of life challenges, she always fights and survives.
I told her this in the best way I knew how, hoping desperately that she heard and understood what I was saying. Cristal, you are a survivor.
Cristal lived in Chicago, I am in Baltimore, but modern technology often allows me to forget that (shoutout to Facetime and snapchat).
Our team is amazing. No one ever lets her forget for one second that we love her endlessly. Members of our 4K team have visited (some multiple times), send her packages, set up fundraisers, sold t shirts, etc.
There is no guidebook for how to be there for your friend as they fight for their life.
I often wonder if I am doing enough or if I am being too much, but that’s the thing, Cristal deserves the best, so all we can do is shower her with all the love and support from wherever we are and help her get through this.
In October, Cristal had major surgery to remove the cancer, and I found myself holding my breath for what felt like an entire day.
Our team held one another as she pushed through an intense surgery with one of our amazing teammates, James in the waiting room giving all of us updates from Chicago.
When James sent the update that she had done amazing and everything had gone well, I sobbed. I cried out of fear and hope and anger and all of the things that I knew she was feeling tenfold.
The morning of her surgery, I designed a t-shirt and started a fundraiser to help her get back on her feet after the surgery. I put a bike with two scenes in the wheels. One was a mountain scene, the classic 4K view that sets any adventurer like Cristal’s heart on fire. In the other wheel, I put sunflowers, her favorite flower.
I put “Be The Sunshine” underneath it. It’s my favorite quote and I came into 4K feeling as if it were my personal mantra, but on the ride, Cristal, time and time again taught me how to be the sunshine and I feel in many ways that it belongs to her.
Cristal’s cancer came back for a third time later that year and she passed away on December 1st, 2019.
I firmly believe that Cristal would never do something that she didn’t want to (I mean this is the girl who threatened to throw her bike off a mountain one time when she didn’t want to ride one day), so when she passed away, I have to believe that it was on her terms.
She has left us with so many memories, lessons, and hilarious videos that will help us keep her alive in our hearts. She taught us to fiercely fight for those who can’t, to never let doubt creep in and keep you from pushing forward and how to love life ferociously.
Cristal is a 2 time Ewings Sarcoma Survivor, but she is a whole lot more. She is a warrior, a fighter, a cross country cyclist, a determined student, a social media queen, an AYA Cancer advocate and a part of my 4K family.
I feel so grateful to have had 70 hilarious, inspiring, Kanye-filled days with Cristal on the 4K road and the years after that as Cristal’s friend. One thing that I have learned is that support comes from things, big and small. It comes from building community.
It comes from listening, laughing, loving with your people. It’s the only way to get through it all. So, as Cristal is climbed some very different types of mountains than on 4K, even though she didn’t have pedals beneath her feet on this journey, she still had 20 wild 4K teammates behind her every step of the way.
Cristal, I will carry your spirit with me for the rest of my time on this earth. I promise to send copious amounts of snapchats, listen to trap music, take risks, advocate for those who can’t, ride my bike with no hands (actually, I still can’t do that, but I will try).
I promise to tell your story every chance I get and I always always always be the sunshine.
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