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Cancer foes generate hope doing laps all night for Relay For Life

April 22nd, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & Photo by Rebecca Holliday

LOGAN—The lights went out in the Nelson Field House at 10 p.m., but the place was still busy as a quiet calm settled in and people walked the track in near silence, lit by the flicker of candles.

The Luminaria Ceremony during Relay For Life is a moving experience. The lights go out, and the night-long party takes a hiatus to remind participants what the Relay For Life is all about.

Celebrate. Remember. Fight back. That’s the slogan for Relay For Life, the biggest not-for-profit activity in the world. For participants, it’s a symbolic journey through the life of a cancer patient.

“Everything we do in Relay is symbolic and represents those words,” said Utah State’s Relay For Life chair Staci Spinder. They are more than just a motto for the event, she said. “Those three words are words that we try to live by.”

The beginning of Relay is a time to celebrate. After the opening ceremonies, participants are encouraged to join in Zumba dance, sing karaoke and listen to music while they take turns walking the track.

At 10 o’clock, Relay participants gather together to remember what they are there for. Speakers talk about their experiences with cancer as participants listen somberly. This is the point in the night when they begin to feel tired, and the journey through the night is becoming harder.

Relay organizers talk to the crowd about how this is similar to the life of a cancer patient: It will get more and more difficult for participants to take their turns to walk the track, but by supporting each other, everyone will get through the night.

• See related story, the American Cancer Society’s Dancing With the Stars event in February.

The remainder of the night all about fighting back—fighting the urge to sleep, and struggling to continue to walk the track. At times it is very tough, but finally the sun comes up and the night is over. This signifies the end of a cancer patient’s battle with cancer.

This year’s USU Relay For Life ran from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the Nelson Fieldhouse, drawing 405 participants ranging from survivors and caregivers, to students working to raise money for the cause.

Relay participants register teams and work together to raise money to donate to the American Cancer Society. They spend months fundraising before the big night, and then camp out in the center of the fieldhouse track and take turns doing laps. Each team has someone on the track all night, save for during the Luminaria Ceremony.

Relay For Life has been raising money to fight cancer since 1985, when a colorectal surgeon in Tacoma, Wash., ran and walked for 24 hours to raise money for his local American Cancer Society office. After he raised $27,000, Dr. Gordy Klatt and a small committee organized the first team Relay event.  In 1986, 19 teams participated and raised $33,000. Since then, annual Relay For Life events have raised an estimated $3 billion.

Cancer survivor Alice Stearns has attended five Relays. Three months after her second Relay For Life, Stearns herself was diagnosed with cancer. She has returned every year with family and friends to fight back, and to see others who have been through similar struggles.

“I think for people who have cancer, Relay is huge in the emotional support because you see other people who have gone through it,” said Stearns. “It reminds you why you’re doing it.”

Last October, Stearns and her husband Bob, along with family and friends, celebrated all of the holidays for the upcoming year; Alice wasn’t expected to make it to November. But she did. After Thanksgiving, she aimed to make it to Christmas. After making it through Christmas, the next checkpoint was April and this year’s Relay For Life.

The Stearnses’ desire to win their battle with cancer has inspired others. “Alice and Bob are very motivating to outsiders,” says friend Dani Cousin. “Relay For Life is such a big part of their life, it makes you want to be a part of it. We initially did it for Alice, but she’s so passionate about it, it made us passionate about it.”

All Relay participants have their own reason for coming. Staci Spinder, the USU committee chair, says she relays for several reasons. As a social work major, Spinder says she tries to volunteer wherever she can, so when the former chair asked her to do the opening and closing ceremonies a few years ago, she welcomed the opportunity.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. Also, like many participants, a good friend of hers had cancer. “She is one of my heroes. She is a lady who helped me through a really hard time when she was going through cancer. She made me want to give back.”

Although many Relayers have been touched by cancer indirectly, many participants are there for themselves. USU’s Relay For Life committee includes five cancer survivors. Meghan Woolstenhulme, a committee member and 20-year survivor, says she Relay For Life is a good way to give back and is something she can personally connect to.

Woolstenhulme, an international business student, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 1. “My whole life I’ve dealt with cancer and the effects of it, the psychological effects of it,” she said and the Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back slogan has been more than three words for her.

“Relay is a great way for people who have been affected by cancer in so many different ways to really connect with each other,” she said.

Charity Maeda, a USU resident assistant and captain of the R and B Team, agrees. “I think that the whole experience is really cool because it brings the community together,” she said.

Maeda’s said she lost her grandpa to cancer, “so it’s something really personal to me. The cancer awareness and raising money for cancer research is one of the best things we can do as students.”

Campus housing RAs and residents spent the entire week doing service and collecting donations for Relay For Life. “I wanted to do it with my residents so they could get a chance to experience Relay,” Maeda said.

This year’s event goal was to raise $40,000, and the 33 teams raised $19,500, with money still coming in. Even though this year’s Relay is over, the battle will continue. Survivors, caregivers, and other Relay participants will celebrate, remember, and fight back until the next Relay For Life.

“It’s not just a motto for relay; it’s a motto for life,” Woolstenhulme said. “Those three things are what have shaped me not only as a cancer survivor, but as a person.”


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