Relay for Life challenges participants much like disease challenges patients
Leavenworth To honor those who beat cancer, those who continue to fight it and those who will someday begin the battle, Relay For Life entrants set aside 12 hours overnight June 2 to go the greatest distance.
The struggle itself was symbolic. Beyond raising money to find a cure, beyond the hope won for cancer patients and their families, the Relay for Life helped entrants grasp the amount of strength it takes to survive cancer.
Those in attendance at Leavenworth's Abeles Field stood applauding as local cancer survivors walked and wheeled through the first lap of the relay - their victory lap - carrying purple and white balloons, which they released at the finish line: a symbol of their freedom from cancer.
A TOKEN STRUGGLE
"Everything we do here is very symbolic," said Rochelle Campbell, a radiology technologist at Cushing Memorial Hospital. "The balloon release when the survivors cross the finish line, that was them releasing the cancer."
Campbell has been involved with the relay for the past five years. The American Cancer Society created the Relay for Life to raise cancer awareness and to raise money to find a cure. Teams compete overnight to complete the greatest number of laps. This is the 13th year it has been organized in Leavenworth, and this year the event raised more than $50,000.
The event is emotional for Campbell, who sees many survivors on the track that she met in the radiology department at Cushing.
"It's just the most amazing thing out here," she said. "Seeing my patients walk around the track that I didn't know where they'd be at this point.
"There's not one person in our department that somebody out here hasn't touched."
The spirit of hope and camaraderie truly may be the greatest benefit of the event. The night is structured to help runners and walkers develop a better understanding of the battle that cancer patients fight.
Campbell said the hours leading up to midnight represent the diagnosis phase in a cancer patient's life, but as the early morning hours arrive, relay entrants begin to understand the physical and mental exhaustion that can accompany a life-or-death fight with cancer.
"The predawn hours where we're all just dragging, wanting to go home and go to bed is where you're struggling through the chemotherapy, through the radiation, through everything," Campbell said. "At the end of the day at 8 o' clock when our relay ends, that's the beginning of a new day. That's when you're in remission, you're ready to go on."
THE TEAM BE-'TWEEN'
Though confronting cancer is a sober and trying experience, in recent years area children have been carving out their own place in the event. This year, a team of seven 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds with a parent sponsor - they call themselves the "Relay Cool Tweenagers" - placed third in the event with 149 laps. That's more than 37 miles.
It is the second year for team members Haley Baragary, 11, and Tabby Hardin, 12, who decided this year to make a group that was more representative of their age.
"It raises money for cancer to find a cure, so we were like, 'Why don't we make a team?'" Baragary said.
As dusk waned and the stadium lights began to flood the field - signifying the true start of the race - the Tweenagers bubbled with enthusiasm. They vowed to fight off drowsiness however they could; mostly they would use soda. Not one planned to sleep. The race has deep importance for the girls.
"If somebody ever has it that you know, it makes you sad," Baragary said. "And you just want to help."
With the help of team sponsor Teresa Hilliard, a teammate's mother and part-time fitness instructor, the girls raised more than $1,200. Despite witnessing a great deal of motivation from the girls in preparation for the relay, Hilliard was surprised at the focus the girls brought to their performance at the event.
"To see all the people who had been affected by cancer, I think it really just motivated the girls even more to see that they were doing something worthy," Hilliard said.
As the night wore on, the girls realized they were near the top of the lap list and set a new goal.
"A couple of them got extremely motivated to be number three," Hilliard said.
And by morning, the girls had done it.
"I just think it's amazing that the only two teams that beat them were the two Army teams," Hilliard said.
Hilliard's daughter Abbie said the excitement of finding out they were close to reaching their goal kept them motivated to keep walking - and by morning, running. Abbie Hilliard, 10, already is thinking about next year.
"It's one of those things that once you start doing it, you kind of get hooked on it and you want to do it again and again and again," Abbie Hilliard said.
The motivation that children bring to the event is no surprise to Campbell.
Her own daughter Lizzy has been involved with the event since the first grade, and is one of the major motivators of the team from Cushing Memorial Hospital, the "Cushing Crusaders." Like for the members of the Relay Cool Tweenagers, Lizzy's youth has proven little hindrance in helping generate the energy and innovation required to raise money each year.
"It's wild because a lot of these younger kids understand more than a lot of the adults do," Rochelle Campbell said.
Lizzy Campbell, 10, has known several friends, family members and teachers who have been touched by cancer. She said this year a friend only learned of his grandfather's successful battle with cancer when he spotted him finishing the survivor's lap at the relay. Lizzy Campbell said her friend felt stunned and she could relate. She is familiar with a hard-to-describe emotional effect that such news brings.
"Everything just kind of goes blurry for a second, so I can realize what actually is happening, then actually realize that they do have cancer," Lizzy Campbell said. "It just feels kind of strange."
To lend a hand, Lizzy Campbell helps to find cancer survivors through her network of friends, and said she is particularly good at fundraising. And she said she was willing to do just about whatever she could beyond that.
"I'm hoping to help out. That's what I like doing," Lizzy Campbell said. "I'm hoping to do what mom does when I'm old enough to do it."
Rochelle Campbell believes her daughter's motivation runs deep enough to go beyond the relatively simple organizing role she plays, however.
"She wants to eventually solve all the problems of cancer, and I mean she's very into it," Rochelle Campbell said.
As the light of dawn began to warm the dew blanketing Abeles Field, the numbers on the track had thinned drastically. Only the most intrepid had survived the battle, and the Relay Cool Tweenagers and the Cushing Crusaders were in the ranks. Dogged determination had replaced the spirited energy of progress that electrified the previous night's air, but hope powered the teams through their final lap.
As they gathered in the stands to bring the relay to a close, entrants communicated with understanding glances that cancer survivors must know well: faces tired, eyes inspired, ready to face the day ahead.