"I have been to 30 countries and I keep in touch with the local people I met. I try to encourage breast cancer sufferers to have regular physical examinations and stay strong." For Deirdre Smyth, one of eight foreign torchbearers chosen by Olympic sponsor Lenovo to run in the Beijing leg of the 2008 Torch Relay, it is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to pass on the flame of hope.
Watch exclusive interview with torchbearer Deirdre Smyth
Born in Venezuela, Deirdre Smyth lived with her husband in Oman for seven years. They then gave their children an even broader view of the world by traveling to the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and Spain. Eagerness to learn about the mysterious East brought the Smyths to China. "A magical world opened up in front of me," said Deidre.
Eight years ago, the 42-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer. After recovering, she began working with friends to help women around the world battle the disease. One of the problems she encountered is that younger women have very little awareness that the disease can affect them. Breast cancer is a complicated and silent disease. By the time sufferers are aware they have it, it's usually too late. The accepted view is that women should have their first check-up between the ages of 42 and 45. But the average age of contracting breast cancer is 34. Early diagnosis gives women a 90% chance of survival but ignorance of the facts of the disease among young women means many sufferers find out too late. Deidre sees the Olympic torch relay as a perfect chance to get her message of regular checkups across. "Everyone loves sports and the Olympics, and the eyes of the world will be on China and the torchbearers," said Deidre. "By carrying the torch I can inform Chinese women about the disease and give them the means to fight it."
That's why as soon as she saw the newspaper advert Deidre decided to write down her story and apply to be an Olympic torchbearer. In the three weeks after she posted her story on the Internet, her family watched the computer screen day and night as the votes rolled in. "I was so excited to find I had so many supporters all over the world. I even got letters from Alaska," recalled Deidre.
Deidre attributes her selection as a torchbearer to her inspiring experience. As a breast cancer survivor, Deidre tries to encourage sufferers, especially those in China, to keep the faith. "When I was sick, it meant so much when fellow-sufferers talked to me and reassured me that I would be ok. They also gave me the information I needed to fight back against the illness," said Deidre. "Here in China, I want to embody the spirit Chinese patients need to survive the challenge." As a torchbearer, she hopes her public image will focus social attention and awareness on the problem of cancer.
Deidre has been living in China for three and a half years. Two years after she arrived she started to write newsletters about China for her husband's company. She writes a monthly survey of what's on in Beijing and hot topics among locals.
Her recent newsletters have concentrated on how the capital is changing and preparing for the Olympics. "I recently wrote about the new ban on smoking in public places – what people think about it and whether it will work."
"When foreigners first arrive they find things are done very differently here," said Deidre. "China seems new and strange. I try to inform people about China and tell them how friendly Chinese people are. The Olympics are a great opportunity for the world to get to know the real China. That's the most important thing – to come and see China."
Deidre is very keen on community activities. She organizes bicycle tours around Old Beijing for foreign residents and devotes herself to charity work. She collects second-hand clothes and other goods from expatriates and promotes charities in her newsletters.
Deidre said her parents and friends would be coming to Beijing and cheer her on. "The world needs the Olympics to bring people together. You shouldn't mix other things with the Olympics, because this is the only chance we have to bring the different cultures and countries together every four years. As a torchbearer, that's the message I want to convey to all the people who see me running."
(China.org.cn by Huang Shan, May 5, 2008)