Each day on Pat Miccio’s calendar lists a number, with a running total for the month on the top of the page – usually somewhere in the hundreds. It’s Miccio’s way of marking how many recyclables she has picked up on the daily walks she takes around her Pennsville, N.J., neighborhood, all carefully tabulated on the wall calendar.
In more than four years, Miccio has collected 18,000 recyclable items others dropped on the ground – soda cans, beer bottles, milk jugs, sports drink containers. But for nearly a year, from December 2010 until September 2011, those days on Miccio’s calendar were empty of anything except doctor’s appointments as she battled breast cancer with the help of the staff at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center.
Miccio’s odyssey from environmental steward to cancer patient to cancer survivor began with her daily walks more than 10 years ago. While she initially walked for the exercise benefits, Miccio quickly discovered another reason to get out of the house every day.
“I just needed to get out, and then it got to the point where I was walking and I’d see all this mess on the ground,” Miccio said. “It starts getting to you.”
Miccio saw an Oprah Winfrey special about the environment, and it inspired her to start carrying a plastic bag with her to collect some of the mess she would see.
“It started out, I brought one bag with me … and then after a couple of weeks, it would be two bags. Then, another couple of weeks, especially after Septemberfest, it jumped up to four bags,” she said. “It’s amazing what you find. It adds up.”
But the collecting was put on hold after Miccio went to her doctor for a routine mammogram in 2010. Miccio was diagnosed with stage 1 cancer in her left breast. She was sent to the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center to begin a treatment regimen. In October 2010, Miccio underwent a lumpectomy. Chemotherapy and radiation followed, lasting for nine months.
For a year, the fight against breast cancer took precedence over the mission to clean up the environment. Even after the treatment ended, she found that she didn’t have the energy to walk every day – because of the lingering effects of her cancer treatments and an ongoing battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
“I’m realizing what a friend of mine had told me: It takes a while to get back into the full swing of life again,” Miccio said.
As the counts on Miccio’s calendar show, she is getting back. By the end of April, she had collected just 270 pieces for the year.
“I’m usually well over a thousand by that point,” she said.
By the end of August, Miccio’s count had climbed to 1,685 for the year.
“Maybe, by the end of the year, I might break 3,000 pieces,” Miccio said. That number would also put her running total at more than 20,000 recyclable items picked up.
Miccio found another cause to help her get back into the swing of life. She has donated the cans painstakingly collected, sorted, washed and crushed after her daily walk to a friend with a relative on dialysis. The money raised from the recycling effort helps to pay for the machine.
While she never expected to become so well acquainted with the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and its services, Miccio is grateful that they were able to get her back to her daily walking and her ongoing fight against the mess others leave behind.
“It was one of those wonderful experiences I hope I never have to do again,” Miccio said.