By Erika Webb
On a scorching day in June, Litsa Taylor ran through the hot, soft sand on the beach. Fatigue, heat and sore muscles urged her to quit. Everyone who's ever been affected by cancer pulled her through the sand and pushed her to the triathlon's finish line.
"I wanted to quit, but I thought I'm not a quitter and I thought of the people with cancer who can't run, who've passed or are in a bed," Mrs. Taylor said. "Thinking of them gives me that extra push."
Mrs. Taylor represents Me Strong, the rapidly growing non-profit organization initiated in 2011 by four DeLand women. They wanted to do something to help their beloved friend, Linda Ryan, who was facing cancer for the third time. They couldn't sit by and sit still.
After all, Ms. Ryan never does.
She overcame thyroid cancer in 2002, cervical cancer 2004, and ran a marathon just four weeks before being told the cervical cancer had recurred, showing up in her lymph nodes. Barbara Underhill, Kim Martin, Kim Winters and Kathy Guyer were determined to find a way to help.
"Kim Winters called me right before my first chemo (treatment)," Ms. Ryan said.
The group of friends had decided they wanted to do a 5k run benefit to honor Ms. Ryan.
"I didn't want it to be just about let's raise money to fight cancer," Ms. Ryan said. "I wanted people to be active. I was in the best shape of my life so I felt strong going into my battle and I feel like if you're in good shape mentally and physically, you're better equipped to conquer anything."
The five of them marched forward carrying that message. Many others have fallen into step.
In two years, Me Strong has raised $25,000; 60 percent has been given to cancer patients and their families for medications, treatment and diversions, such as dinner out with their families.
Proceeds have gone to, among others, a cancer-stricken mother of twins, a 16 year-old-boy with brain cancer and a woman with metastatic breast cancer.
The rest of the funds raised have been donated to cancer research.
That first 5k race in DeLand was on Jan. 28, 2012. It was expected to attract 300 participants. Social media, community newspaper coverage and Ms. Ryan's open, honest blog about her journey through cancer saw to it the roster was three times that number. The 5k is Me Strong's flagship annual fundraiser, and Mrs. Taylor said, in its second year, the race drew 1,200 runners, making it the largest 5k race ever in Volusia County.
In 2012, VP Communications President Vickie Pleus and the Me Strong "Linda's Run for the Dream" 5k won a Florida Public Relations Association Judges' Award at the Orlando Area Chapter Image Awards program in the very competitive special event category.
Mrs. Taylor, who teaches Fashion Marketing at DeLand High School, ran in both 5ks, winning first place in her age division each time.
She said the Me Strong founders contacted her offering to sponsor her in other events as a way to market their organization.
"So I do events all over Florida representing Me Strong," Mrs. Taylor said.
The 35-year-old mother of three children displays the Me Strong logo as she participates in triathlons, races..." anything to get exposure," she explained.
Aside from displaying the logo, Mrs. Taylor talks to other contestants and attendees at the events about the endeavor and the group's accomplishments.
"It's an honor for me to represent such an elite group of women, those five women who embody everything I look up to," Mrs. Taylor said. "I may not win every race, but it's more important for me to be a positive influence for my children, my friends and the community."
Mrs. Taylor is an active member of Stetson Baptist Church. Her three children, Carson, 7, Reese, 4, and Caroline, 2, inspire her to lead by example. She wants them to see their mother being physically and spiritually active, eating right, achieving goals and inspiring goal-setting in others.
Those ambitions did not go unnoticed by Me Strong's founding five.
"Basically, they thought I embodied everything Me Strong stood for," Mrs. Taylor said. "I have an active lifestyle. I work, am active in the community. I'm a mom and I try to teach my kids to live a healthy lifestyle."
She said she only started running about two years ago, right around the time of the first 5k race, but she's always enjoyed physical activities including biking, spinning and cross-fit, and is a "huge" supporter of the DeLand YMCA.
Running added a whole new dimension to Mrs. Taylor's life and allows her to devote more time to one that was solidly in place before her feet hit the pavement.
"God is my number one, my support system," Mrs. Taylor said. "When I'm running I have a lot of time. That's when I think, pray and clear my head. I can make a lot of decisions and I just kind of feel free."
Often, she pushes a double stroller containing her two girls, which provides the added benefit of quality family time.
Ms. Ryan considers running a lifesaver.
In 2011, she participated in a clinical trial at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where she underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy. Each treatment included a nine-hour infusion. Between flights to Houston for treatments she ran for her life.
"I did two half marathons and three 5ks," Ms. Ryan said. "For me, being outside and being active was my way of letting cancer know it would not win."
By March 2012, there was no evidence of disease in her body.
The organization's name originated prior to Ms. Ryan's 2011 diagnosis during a trip she, Mrs. Winters and Mrs. Winters' daughter took to Boston.
"We were doing a power walk in Boston Garden and this woman ran by," Ms. Ryan said. "She looked so confident and strong and Kim looked at me and said, 'Me strong woman!'"
She's not the only one.
Ms. Ryan said Me Strong has given each of the five women something.
"We each find purpose, satisfaction and gratification through doing this and giving back to others, and telling my story has been therapeutic for me," she said.
Also for her, the effort gave deeper meaning to the concept of friendship.
"These friends ... what they've done to honor me, to help me through my battle, it really defines what friendship should be and is," she said. "Honestly, I'm thankful for my cancer. So much good has come out of it."