05/20/07 — Joining hearts to fight cancer

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Joining hearts to fight cancer

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on May 20, 2007 2:06 AM

Heavy rains weren't enough to stop Wayne County's Relay for Life from honoring survivors and remembering those lost to cancer Friday.

Or from raising more than $675,000 to add to the fight to put an end to the disease -- with even more donations expected over the next couple of weeks.

The 18th annual Relay kicked off with the opening ceremony and a cancer survivors lap around the makeshift track at Wayne Community College.

Minutes later, participants scurried under any available tent as the skies opened up and drenched walkers and campsites. After it was all over, they went back to walking, eating, playing games and having fun.

Among them was Joy Vinson, who was waging a battle of her own.

The 46-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer in February. Her school, Fremont STARS, rallied around her with a campsite at the Relay.

"I'm actually speechless about it," she said. "Around the time I was diagnosed with cancer, the school started planning its Relay fundraising strategies.

"The next thing I knew, they had a team and it was to honor me. There are just no words to express really how I feel, no words to describe what these people have done for me."

The art teacher participated in past Relays, but never dreamed as she was raising money to fight cancer, that the battle would one day be hers, too.

She even postponed the start of her chemotherapy treatments until Monday so she could take part in the Relay.

"I'm going to be a survivor," she said.

More than 128 teams sold food, shared laughs and tears and remembered that Friday's event was about more than just a good time. It was to honor those who have lost their battles with cancer -- and those who are still fighting.

Leading the way were the survivors, hundreds of them, who walked the first lap -- releasing purple and white balloons into the sky as a sign of hope for the future.

Bonnie Gray, 47, knows how important a positive attitude can be.

She was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in July 2006. This was her first Relay as a survivor.

"It's a very humbling experience," she said. "You just never think it's going to happen to you. It can happen to anybody at any time, when you least expect it.

"It's a whole different perspective when you are a cancer victim. There's a lot of support here and it gives us a lot of hope. It's devastating but you can live with cancer."

The early evening rain did not douse the luminaria ceremony. Flickering lights shined in the hundreds of bags boasting names of friends, mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers -- and even children -- some gone, some still fighting, but none forgotten.

Lisa Helms lit one of those luminaria for her father, Herb Bryant.

She lost him in 1997, but remembers him every year, here.

"I light a luminaria for him every year," Mrs. Helms said. "Dad was an inspiration in my life. I think about him every single day. This is so wonderful. It brings me closer to him."

His daughter closes her eyes when she lights her father's luminaria and remembers all the special times they shared. And when the ceremony is finished, she will add this year's bag to a box -- a collection of memories for each year she has lit a light in his honor.

Her husband, Mark, lights a luminaria for his mother, Hallie Helms. She died of pancreatic cancer. He, too, will spend a little time with memories.

"She had the worst kind, and it was a death sentence when it was found," he said.

Her son is certain his mother is there with him as he pauses by her memorial. Today, like every day, she is often on his mind.

"Mom told me that I didn't need to go out to her graveside because that's not where she was going to be," he said. "Maybe she's a little bit here at the Relay. Maybe she's a little bit around the dinner table. Maybe she's a little bit at work with me."

Following the luminaria service, colorful fireworks filled the sky. The festivities continued throughout the night and into Saturday morning with the Kidswalk event bringing an emotional two days to an end.

The Relay concluded with a pack-the-track event and a closing ceremony.

For co-chairman Dr. Lee Adams, it is amazing just how many people join hands each year to laugh, cry and remember. He thinks faith and love have a lot to do with the ever-increasing numbers and money the Relay brings each year.

And while hundreds of thousands of dollars in money for cancer research is wonderful, he said, in the end it is about more than funds raised and goals reached.

"I've said from the very first Relay that the spirit of the Relay, working together and showing the love of Christ and compassion, is what the Relay is all about," he said. "When we reach our goal, that's just icing on the cake."

Friday's storm was nothing more than a momentary distraction, he added, a tribute of sorts to the survivors who continue their fights and families and friends who refuse to forget.

"That's what the Relay is all about, persevering through whatever comes," he said.

And maybe, someday, he added, that hard work and compassion will bring something else -- a cure.