The disease is nearly as ubiquitous as it is ugly, deadly, and nondiscriminatory.
“The startling reality is one in two men and one in three women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime,” says Eric Noll, a community manager with Relay For Life.
It cuts a wide swath of pain and suffering through people’s lives, but thanks to events like Relay For Life, we can quell its destructive influence by remembering those already among the stars, celebrating those still among us, and fighting for those yet to be born.
From 5 p.m. Friday until 2 a.m. Saturday, Relay For Life of Olmsted County happens at the Rochester Community and Technical College. The event raises money for the American Cancer Society; funds go toward free patient services like rides to treatment, places to stay, and connections with specialists who educate people about their diagnosis.
Relay For Life is open to the public, and even if you’re not running or walking in it, organizers would love to have you. Beginning with the opening ceremony and its attendant celebration lap for cancer survivors and their caregivers, the evening is punctuated with ceremonies sure to move your soul.
Throughout the evening, people can purchase biodegradable balloons and write messages to loved ones who have passed. At 8:30 p.m., the balloons are released skyward with bursts of music, emotion, and, for some, heart-leavening catharsis.
Another ceremony is held to light luminarias, white bags decorated in memory or honor of those affected by cancer. At dusk, a bagpiper leads participants around the track and people ignite the candles within the bags, which will glow through the night to lead participants around the track.
If it sounds moving, that’s because it is.
“I have to tell you, I get goosebumps just thinking about that bagpiper and lighting the luminaries,” says event chair Becky Waara.
The event features light-hearted activities, too; at midnight, Relay Rumble, organizers’ take on Family Feud, goes down. Throughout the event, a silent auction, bean bag tournament, relay poker lap, and a fleet of inflatables for children serve cravings for lighter moods.
More than anything, the event is a way to connect survivors of cancer, who wear ribbons marked with the number of years the wearer has been a survivor. Whether they say six months or 25 years, those ribbons lend invaluable inspiration to others.
Waara tells the story of an organizer sitting on the bleachers next to a little boy and his mother. Upon seeing the organizer’s survivor ribbon, the boy turned to his mother.
“Mom, she’s been a survivor for 8 years. I know you can do it,” he said.
“There’s something to be said about a bunch of people coming alongside you, in a relay, to be there and support you,” says Honorary Chair Tara Maier, survivor of stage 4 ovarian cancer, mother, and wife to Jay Maier. “When there’s people alongside of us in the journey, it’s very helpful.”
Words from a survivor
In 2013, Dawn Johnson was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma, a kind of brain cancer. She’s been involved with Relay For Life ever since, now sitting on the event leadership team.
“I’m inspired by all the survivors and the ones that have gone through a lot. A whole lot more than even I could imagine. It’s just given me inspiration to keep pushing on and keeps giving me hope that this disease is not going to get me. That they’re not going to get killed by this disease.”
“The connections I’ve made with survivors have given me support as well. Just somebody that can share my experiences and that I can ask, what did they do when they had this situation, and then, also, I can help other survivors when they come to me and they ask me, what to do in this situation. It’s just that mutual support.”