Fighting cancer one step at a time
American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life raises funds and celebrates people continually engaged in the battle against this deadly disease
By Charlotte Beard
The fight against cancer is a battle worth celebrating. This is what makes the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) Relay for Life such a special event.
Relay for Life will take place at the Emerson Grand Basin in Forest Park at 5595 Grand Dr in St. Louis on Aug. 25. The opening ceremony will begin at 6 p.m. to honor everyone affected by cancer and those who have contributed to the success of the event. The emcees for the relay will be KMOV’s meteorologist Meghan Danahey and Billy and Julie from 103.3 KLOU’s Billy & Julie in the Morning show. Those who are not actively participating in the relay are invited to attend the event for free in support of participants.
The relay began in 1985 when Dr. Gordy Klatt, a colorectal surgeon in Tacoma, Washington, ran and walked around a track for 24 hours to raise money for ACS. He raised over $34,000. Last year, St. Louis raised over $80,000.
“The money raised goes to all of our mission, which is research here in St. Louis,” said Laura Ozenkoski, Community Development Manager for ACS – North Region. “We have two research facilities, one at St. Louis University and Washington University. We support young researchers with grants. Here in St. Louis we have over $7.6 million invested. We also have several programs to support people when there is a diagnosis. We have a recovery program and a patient chauffeur program just to ensure that no one (has problems) getting to their treatment. We want to make sure that there are no transportation barriers. We also have Hope Lodge right here on our (ACS) campus. It’s a 45-bed hospitality house; people come (here) from all over the world. A cancer survivor and a caregiver can stay for free if they need to (while) they’re in active cancer treatment.”
There are also programs that work to heal patients emotionally.
“(In addition), we have a wig program for women who lose their hair due to cancer treatments (that provides) free wigs. We have a partnership with Look Good Feel Better for women. When they go through cancer treatment sometimes they not only lose their hair, but they lose their eye brows and eye lashes. This is a cosmetologist led program (that provides) the cancer patient with a nice makeup kit to keep. (In the) program they learn to draw-on their eye brows, draw-on eye lashes, and take care of their skin while they’re going through treatments,” Ozenkoski said.
Following the opening ceremony for the relay will be the Survivors Walk followed by the Caregivers Walk. Karen Kramer, 11-year survivor, shared that she is inspired by the unity of the survivors as they go around the Grand Basin.
“It’s amazing and so beautiful when it’s lit up at night (by the luminaries),” she said.
Kramer shared how she became aware of Relay for Life when it took place in West County. Rhonda Travers, 14-year volunteer for the event, told her about the relay.
“We had gone to grade school together and reconnected on Facebook,” stated Kramer. “She saw that I was battling breast cancer and shared (that she) was volunteering with Relay for Life. I was like ‘oh my gosh, I would like to be a part of that.’ It sounded like such an amazing (event). I love the whole theme that ‘cancer never sleeps’; a member of the (participating) team is constantly walking throughout the event because cancer never sleeps. It really strikes a chord with you. It’s helping with research to find a cure someday.”
It is important to note that Kramer shared that the life-sustaining drug she uses, Herceptin, is the result of research funded by ACS.
Travers said, “Four years ago, (ACS) combined five relays into one. I was on the planning committee for the West County relay for 10 years. This is my fourth year being on the combined relay for all of St. Louis which represents five different areas coming together as one. The traditional model of relay (in the past) was that we had it at a school track; the event would last for 12 hours overnight.”
Travers explained that the overnight relay was representative of a person who has been diagnosed with cancer dealing with the anguish of the news until very early hours the next morning. Seeing the sunlight at 6 a.m. is symbolic of hope for a cure. In the last four years the event in St. Louis has been shortened to four hours.
Following the survivor and caregiver walk will be the luminaria ceremony. This ceremony allows participants to purchase luminaria bags in honor of or in memory of someone who has had cancer.
“All of these luminaria bags are lined up around the Grand Basin in Forest Park,” stated Ozenkoski. “(When the) sun sets the luminarias are turned on and it’s absolutely the most impactful event I’ve ever been to. We follow that up with fireworks.”
Travers, a member of the Event Leadership Team, stated that volunteers are welcome to help place the expected 500 – 1000 luminaria bags around the basin. Currently there are 10 people that serve in that capacity.
For volunteers, Travers said, “The biggest inspiration has been the positive impact on cancer survivors and being able to introduce them to this event so that they can talk with other survivors and feel a part of a group and (know that) they’re not alone. They have resources to educate both caregivers and survivors on all the resources that the American Cancer Society has so that they don’t go through it alone. Knowing that has an impact on others is really inspiring to me. Just meeting all the survivors, I have over the past 14 years, (seeing) their courage and how they’ve persevered through different trials they have to go through has been very inspiring to me.”
Both Ozenkoski and Travers shared there will be various special activities for survivors and their guests. To ensure that all cancer survivors get a free purple survivor T-shirt, ACS recommends they register prior to the day of the event. Survivors and caregivers can expect to be treated to a very nice meal. The Film Perspective will be providing free keepsake photos, branded with the relay logo, for cancer survivors and their guests. BJC will be present with their new interactive bus that includes many carnival-style games. In addition, Liberty, the bald eagle from the World Bird Sanctuary, will be present for participant photo ops. A donation is required. For details about Liberty visit: http://www.worldbirdsanctuary.org/your-visit/our-animals/eagles/liberty.
Registration is still open. Travers states that many people normally sign up as a team to raise a minimum of $100 per person. Those who raise $100 or more will receive an exclusive Hope Club T-shirt.
“I would encourage (survivors) to get involved just because of the support and they really (wouldn’t) feel alone,” shares Kramer. “You are surrounded by so much love, so much inspiration, so much support and you meet so many people. You can become life-long friends with these people. It truly changes your life. (ACS) has helped me financially when I was struggling with my rent when I was first diagnosed, and I had to quit my job, and I didn’t have health insurance. I was really struggling. They were a big resource for me.”
To register for Relay for Life, find out about vendor and volunteer opportunities, and other details visit www.relayforlife.org/stlmo. You may also call 314-286-8172 or 314-286-8167.
CUTLINE: Submitted photos Cover-Cancer1&2 Luminaria bags are lined up around the Grand Basin in Forest Park. The luminaria bags are in honor of or in memory of someone who has had cancer.
Cover-Cancer3 A group of survivors are recognized at the 2017 Relay for Life event in Forest Park.