Traveling 33,000 Miles to Help Fight Cancer

Drew Lawrence

Mankind has long used soul-searching journeys to grapple with life's heavier subjects. But schlepping through airport after airport to board a continuous series of commercial flights isn't exactly the sort of travel therapy that usually comes to mind.

For one Charlottesville, Virginia, man, however, JetBlue's $699 All You Can Jet unlimited one-month travel pass turned out to be just the impetus he needed to finally start coming to terms with his mother's death.

"I lost my mom nine and a half years ago when she was diagnosed with stage-four brain cancer," Drew Lawrence explained in a phone interview with AOL Travel during a recent layover. Kathleen Wilson Lawrence passed away during her son's freshman year in college, and Lawrence said it took him about five years to realize his mother was gone -- and another four years to really start talking about it.

When he first heard about JetBlue's unlimited travel pass in August, Lawrence says he was intrigued. But then reality set in. "I thought -- hey, let's be real, you have a job, you can't just leave and travel around the country for a month," says Lawrence, who worked as director of sales and marketing for a real estate company prior to leaving for his trip.

Then he had a conversation with someone that changed things, says Lawrence. It occurred to him that perhaps he could use a month of travel around the country as a way to help himself, as well as other people who are either fighting cancer or watching a loved one battle the disease.

And while Lawrence acknowledges that raising money for 5K runs and soliciting donations outright is an entirely respectable way to fight cancer, he had a different idea entirely -- his weapon against the indiscriminate killer, he decided, would be conversation.

Traveling for Cancer

Drew arrived in Salt Lake City on September 16th and was greeted by a group of people who heard about his journey; Drew Lawrence

"I looked at traveling as an avenue from a personal standpoint not to be judged for telling my story," he says, "And at the same time to hear other people's stories and maybe be able to help them."

"It was hard to have that inside of me as long as I did," he says, referring to the anguish he felt after his mother died from the disease. "And I know there are other people like that out there who don't want to feel as though they burden people with their story."

When Lawrence told his boss about what he planned to do, he "could not have been more supportive." So Lawrence bought the JetBlue pass, left his job, and hit the road for the entire month of the offer's duration -- traveling more than 33,000 miles to talk to as many people as possible with the hopes of "turning those negative connections with cancer into positive ones."

And the positive connections he's made along the way have been the highlight. "I am meeting people who, in a normal situation in my life in Charlottesville, I would have had no reason to talk to," he says. "Before this trip, I was that guy who was chasing everything and not appreciating what I had -- the people, the relationships, the memories."

Lawrence kicked off his trip on September 7 in Washington, D.C., and then headed to New Orleans. Shortly after, he received a long email from a woman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "It took me ten to fifteen minutes to read it, but by the time I was done, I caught myself sobbing," he says, "And at the end of the story she'd written, 'Thank you for letting me tell my story. Please don't tell anyone.'"

During a stop in Monterey, California, Lawrence was invited to go skydiving with a two-time non-Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor named Steve Rafferty. "I jumped out of a plane at 18,000 feet with him strapped to my back," says Lawrence, "This is a person who used to be a Silicon Valley executive, who drove into his driveway one day and said to himself, 'Great, I have all this stuff -- now what?'"

Traveling for Cancer

Drew skydives with Steve Rafferty in Marina, CA; Skydive Monterey

Lawrence says Rafferty said something to him that will stick with him long after the thrill of their tandem skydive wears off. "He told me he'd rather have a great life and make a lousy living than have a fantastic living and a lousy life."

On another one of his recent travel legs, Lawrence found himself on the streets of Burlington, Vermont, when a homeless man came up to him and asked for a dollar to buy a hot dog. "I told him 'It depends, can you answer a question?'" recalls Lawrence, and he asked the man if he knew anyone who'd been affected by cancer.

"He gave me the 'Who the heck are you?' look, and I said, 'All you have to do is answer the question,'" says Lawrence. "I was expecting a flippant response, but he said 'Yes, I lost my mom to cancer.' And we sat down and had a hot dog and soda and just talked and talked."

For Lawrence, putting things in perspective -- realizing what's important in life -- has had everything to do with his personal healing along this journey. "I am the guy who plans out everything and knows what every step is going to be, but I went into this saying 'no expectations.' I don't want to limit myself," he says. "I tend to set low limits because I don't want to fall short. But with this trip I didn't want to do that. I haven't, and it's been unbelievable."

Social media, says Lawrence, has been key to his cause. And in addition to using Facebook and Twitter, he is spreading the word about what he is doing by blogging on his website, (the name refers to the fact that he'll be traveling for 29 days and will turn 29 at the end of the trip). Lawrence's website has a PayPal link for people looking to donate to the American Cancer Society, but he says he does not actively solicit donations.

"This is an awareness campaign about cancer, and people are a lot more willing to talk to you if you're not selling them something," he says, "I wanted it to be about the conversations and connections, not the dollar."

The kindness of strangers has been a surprise to Lawrence along the way. He's had passengers on flights offer him the window seat so he could lean his head on the wall to sleep. A maintenance worker at the airport in Long Beach, California, found him a quiet corner of the terminal so he could crash one night. And random passengers have even treated him to meals after hearing his story. Lawrence estimates that when his month of travel is through, he will have spent about $2,000 (including the JetBlue pass, lodging, food, etc.). "It's working out to be about two cents per mile of flying by the time it's all said and done," he says. "I think it's fair to say I've gotten my money's worth."

Traveling for Cancer

Drew and his mother in 1998; Drew Lawrence

And the experience, he says, has also brought him closer to his mother.

"There was a random point in time in California two weeks ago where I was taking pictures out in Big Sur, and I got welled up, really missing mom," says Lawrence. "She always loved traveling and seeing new things, and I've been doing that."

"There have definitely been times that I've seen something or been somewhere and felt she was there," he says. "That's been comforting to me, because for a long time I didn't open myself up to allow that. And I'm glad I have. It's been a cool feeling."

Before returning home on October 6, Lawrence plans to spend a few days of his journey somewhere warm and affordable, preferably on the beach.

"I want to just reflect on the last month and try to explain to my friends and family what it meant," he says.

You don't have to travel 33,000 miles like Drew to get involved. Start your own conversation, and lend your support to charities like the American Cancer Society.

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