Cancer touches every life. Even people who never live with the disease see it affect the lives of those around them.
That’s why Relay for Life was started. A 24-hour event, shortened to eight hours the last two years during the pandemic, attendees relay to raise funds for the American Cancer Society’s efforts to combat cancer.
The event can be more accurately described as a movement. Relay for Life chapters host support groups and fundraising events, creating a welcoming environment to show cancer patients, survivors and their families they are not alone.
Saturday, Sept. 18, Lewis County’s Relay for Life will be held at George Washington Park in Centralia from 2 to 10 p.m. for all who wish to join, at no cost.
There will be a mile-long course for attendees to walk or run as many times as they wish. People who don’t intend to walk or run are also welcome. T-shirts will be given to those who raise at least $100 through their own donations or through the sponsorship of family, friends or employers.
Patty Allee, co-lead organizer of Relay for Life of Lewis County, first got involved with the movement in 1987 when it first came to the area. She started on a team with her coworkers from Fred Meyer, working her way to team captain in the late ‘90s. From there, she joined the Relay for Life of Lewis County leadership team. She’s only missed one annual event since, due to a family emergency.
Allee has stayed in her position all this time because of the survivors, who she said are the “lifeblood of Relay.” Offering survivors a loving community and seeing their passion and fighting spirits makes her unable to tear herself away from the program, she said.
“They’re the reason why I Relay. My mom and dad both passed of cancer, my grandma passed of cancer, my uncle, I’ve had friends that have passed of cancer,” Allee said. “And now, I have friends that are survivors.”
At the end of Saturday’s event, there will be a “Luminaria Ceremony” or paper lantern ceremony, hosted by Miss Lewis County and Little Miss Friendly, with lights to represent lives lost. Survivors will come up and ring a bell, one time for every year they’ve been cancer free. Bags will also be available to paint during the event, by donation.
Activities for children will be provided by Kelly’s Kids Camp. Cancer survivors who register at the event will be entered into a drawing to win a $1,000 estate planning package donated by the Althauser Rayan and Abbarno law firm.
To donate or sign up as an individual, team or company, visit relayforlife.org/lewiscountywa.
Survivors Find Hope
Jeannine Kelley has been free from ovarian cancer for 21 years. At the time of her diagnosis, she was a young woman with a 2-year-old son and two stepchildren. And she was pregnant.
“I had to make a decision,” she said. “To survive or to have my child. My husband at the time and I talked about that a lot, and then I decided that I was going to fight for my child. And then I lost her four days later.”
Afterward, she fell into a depression that prevented her from being able to feel connected to her family. Her marriage eventually ended, along with her dreams of having a big family.
The hysterectomy following Kelley’s miscarriage was the extent of her cancer treatment. But the suffering spurred on by the cancer still weighs heavily on her heart decades later. For some time, she felt guilty talking about her cancer with other survivors, believing that compared to those who went through years of chemotherapy, she got off easy. With the support of friends involved in Relay for Life, she has started to unlearn that guilt.
“For 10 years of my life, everything was cancer, even though I didn’t have cancer,” Kelley said. “I didn't have a group like (Relay for Life). And now that I have this group I find myself wishing I had it 20 years ago.”
Now she is remarried, her son is grown up and she has hope for the future. The Relay for Life community has shown her that she is not alone in her experience, there are people out there who understand. And the community, she said, would benefit everyone to be involved in.
To survivors still struggling alone, reluctant to join groups like Relay for Life, Kelley’s message is: “Don't wait 20 years.”
Community for Survivors, Families
Katie Foss was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2012. If she had the same cancer just 15 years prior, she said it would have been a “death sentence.”
Foss went through six rounds of chemotherapy, 39 rounds of radiation and was on a chemo drug for a full year. As challenging and painful as the treatments were, the feeling she recalled following her diagnosis was loneliness.
John Foss, her husband, remembers those first appointments feeling surreal and shocking. He could hardly hear the doctor speaking over his emotions. He just wanted to support his wife, yet didn’t know how.
“He wanted to know what to do,” Foss said, through tears. “And I said, ‘Just be there, hold my hand. That’s all we need.’”
Their youngest daughter Carrie had friends involved in Relay for Life, so she brought Foss to the event during the course of the treatments.
When they arrived, Foss said, she saw a sea of survivors in purple T-shirts and was filled with hope. Members of the movement became the community she needed.
“I knew I was going to make it then,” she said. “Relay is my family, they supported me. It made such a difference that very first Relay to go and be surrounded by people that were sharing similar experiences.”
Like Kelley, she said she would encourage everyone to get involved with the event whether as a survivor or not.
Patty Powell, who has been in remission from breast cancer for two years, also said the Relay for Life community offered her a supportive team.
When first diagnosed, Powell acted quickly. She had her lump removed 10 days after discovering it. She started aggressive chemotherapy soon after, with radiation just six weeks after that.
She was criticized for her approach, even by those closest to her. One of her best friends called her a liar, to which Powell responded by lifting her shirt to show the scar from surgery.
“You have to do what's best for you, and you're the only one that can make the decision. Not a husband or spouse, not a parent, it's you,” she said.
She showed up at her family’s Christmas celebration with a shaved head, which is how she told her family. Having to give up her volunteer work and other joys, Powell hunkered down and did everything she could to fight the disease.
With Relay for Life, she found the support she hadn’t originally received from her friends.
“I survived. I'm a survivor. I fought really hard. And it's been nice to have the support of Relay,” Powell said. “There’s always hope. And you have to have faith to be able to go on that journey.”