DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley's daughter Claire writes "I love you Dad" on memory board
Family & Friends

Colon Cancer Run

“Looks like the date of the Scope It Out run has been set for March 31,” the text read. It was from my friend Ilan. After Shawn died, Ilan spent countless hours organizing the first group of people to run in this spring 5K to raise money for colon cancer. I knew he wanted to continue the tradition this year.

I looked at his text again.  Could that date be right? 

It was.  The colon cancer run was scheduled for Claire’s tenth birthday.  While I had a whole string of events planned for her, I knew that we’d also have to participate in the run on the same day.  I braced myself to tell her, worried that she might feel like her birthday was being eclipsed.

“Claire,” I said, “I just found out that the colon cancer run is on your birthday.  So we’ll do that, and have a little brunch afterwards, and then do some more celebrating for your birthday in the afternoon.  What do you think about that?”

“Fun!” she said, and her face lit up.  “There are a lot of cool things happening on my birthday!”


I was glad she didn’t throw a fit, because I was doing the run with or without her.  Last year, when Ilan organized it, I had expected a dozen people to show up.  Instead, there were over 60 people with “Turd Offset” shirts ready to run for Shawn.  It was an amazing feeling.

Why, you may wonder, was our team called the “Turd Offset”?  Well, here’s what Ilan told me when I asked:

We had a competition inside CNAS (the think-tank where Shawn was the vice-president) for people to come up with the best name and two separate people suggested it independently.  It is a play on a concept that Shawn was very influential in promoting – the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy.  This was a new approach for how the US should invest in next generation military systems to effectively compete against China. And of course turd because ya know – colons…  Anyway, we thought it was the perfect tribute to Shawn capturing both his very serious and influential work, but also his silly often inappropriate sense of humor!

Shawn would have loved it.  He enjoyed mildly (and sometimes wildly) inappropriate jokes and he never minded other people poking fun at him.  When the doctors drew a picture of his colon to show him where they would be performing surgery, he made them all sign it.  “I’m going to hang this in my living room!” he said proudly.

He also would have learned everything about colon cancer, if he had been given more time.  As it was, he knew plenty.  But since he’s died, I’ve learned more (and you can too, if you want to visit the Colorectal Cancer Alliance website at https://www.ccalliance.org where I got all of these statistics that follow.)

Yes, the median age at diagnosis for colon cancer is 68 in men.  But did you know that in recent years, there have been rising rates of colon cancer among young people?  So many, in fact, that the American Cancer Society recently recommended that adults without a family history should begin colorectal cancer screening at age 45.

Age 45, people.  I know that a lot of you who read this blog are at least that old.  So I’m telling you this.  If you are 45 or older and haven’t had your screening done, you better get it done before you admit otherwise to me.  I’m not likely to be “understanding” that you are too busy to get screened.  Just get it done.

Anyway, back to my story.  This year’s colon cancer run was downtown, just like last year, but unlike last year, it was a cold and rainy day.  Still, dozens and dozens of people started showing up, including many people from Shawn’s work community as well as our dear friends and family. Claire even had a few friends show up to run with her. They all ran off to the kids’ tent where they promptly got poop emojis painted on their faces. (The poop theme that runs through this race is very prominent. Shawn would have loved that.)

There were thousands of people there. I went over to the tent where Claire was getting her face painted. She was talking to a young girl who was running the tent – someone else who’d lost her father to colon cancer. “Maybe someday you’ll be a volunteer at this race,” I said to Claire.

“That would be really cool!” she said.

“You see that woman?” I asked, and pointed to a woman with “survivor” written on her shirt. “She’s a survivor. That means she has had colon cancer but she lived. That’s what this run does – it raises money to help people survive colon cancer.”

Claire stared at the woman. “But how is she going to run a race? How is that possible? When Dad had cancer, he couldn’t run.”

“Well, baby,” I said, “not everyone with cancer dies. That used to happen a lot, but now they can cure a lot of people. Some people can even live and run and work with cancer. Dad’s was just the really bad kind they don’t have a cure for yet.”

She didn’t say anything, but she kept staring at the woman with the survivor shirt. What was she thinking? Did she wonder why her dad got the kind of cancer that killed him, while this woman got the kind that she could live with? Did she wonder why her dad got cancer at all? Was she thinking about the injustice of it all?

Or was that just me thinking all those thoughts?

“Mom,” Claire said, snapping me out of my thoughts, “I wrote something on the memory board.”

She brought me over to a chalkboard. People had written their loved ones names all over it. In the middle, Claire wrote “I love you, Dad.”

It took all of my strength not to cry. “Do you like it?” she asked me.

“It’s perfect,” I said.

Eventually we started the race. Austin ran with his cousin, and I ran ahead with Claire and her friends. My friend Katy ran with us. It felt good – to run and laugh with these adorable 10-year-olds. It started to rain harder and we all laughed at how wet and squishy our socks were in our shoes. For the first time that morning, the I’m-almost-going-to-cry feeling lessened from my chest.

As we approached the finish line, the girls decided to hold hands as they crossed. Katy and I hung back, marveling at their sweetness.

The kids turned around at the finish line, cheering us on. “C’mon, mom!” I heard Claire yell.

“Should we hold hands and cross the finish line together?” Katy said with a sparkle in her eyes.

We did. As we crossed the finish line, we laughed with our girls and their friends who surrounded us. The girls wanted to stay at the finish line and high-five the other runners. Katy and I watched with the other parents, laughing and chatting in that way that you do after a race.

After about 5 minutes, I saw a survivor cross the line. I saw Claire look intently at the runner in the “survivor” shirt. She made eye contact and held out her hand.

“You did it!” I heard her yell as they high-fived.


  • Carmelita

    Actually, as I approach the sixth anniversary of my husband‘s death I would say that I have been given a lot from this very difficult path. And that’s a pretty recent understanding!

    • Marjorie

      Yes, I can totally understand that. I have been given a lot because I had to survive this. I mean, I know we’d both take our husbands back instead, but since Shawn had to die, I’m glad I’ve been able to grow through it.

  • Michael Zoosman

    A beautiful article – and a magical run. It was my honor to participate to honor Shawn and the Brimleys and to give Claire and others a high-five at the finish line.

    And, for the record – with a mother diagnosed with colon cancer at 44 – I will be getting my third colonoscopy next month. I second Marjorie’s comment about early detection for all.

    A hearty thank you as well to Ilan for organizing a wonderful event again this year.

    • Marjorie

      Thank you so much for being there – and for spreading the word about colonoscopies! And yes – yay to Ilan!

  • Ian

    You’ve come close many times, but you finally did it:
    You made me cry at work!
    Thanks for sharing this amazing moment.

  • Susan

    My daughter works at the Colorectal Cancer Alliance and helped with this race! ( in the cold and rain). Having lost her dad, my husband, less than a year ago, I know that if she had seen your Claire at the finish line she would have scooped her up in a huge bear hug!

    • Marjorie

      I love hearing this. When I saw all these young adults working the race, I said to Claire, “someday, you can help with this race!” I love how your daughter is giving back – it’s so lovely.