05/18/08 — One cause. Thousands of hearts.

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One cause. Thousands of hearts.

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on May 18, 2008 2:00 AM

Michelle Marks used to be the one at Relay for Life clapping as the survivors took their traditional lap to mark the official opening of the event.

She was there for her grandmothers, both of whom died of cancer.

But this year was different -- special, in an ironic sort of way.

Michelle was the one with the purple T-shirt that denotes a cancer survivor.

Michelle was one of the many Wayne County people who kicked off the 19th annual Relay Friday, ande ach one had his or her own story to tell.

The 47-year-old was diagnosed with breast cancer this past December.

Even a chemotherapy treatment the day before couldn't stop her from being part of the fundraising event and taking her place as a cancer survivor at this year's Relay, which was held Friday and Saturday at Wayne Community College. She has one more chemotherapy treatment before starting radiation therapy followed by reconstructive surgery.

"This year I'm a survivor, and it feels wonderful because I'm still here," Michelle said.

Brothers Allen, 11, and Wesley Anttila, 9, made the two-hour trip from their home in Cape Carteret Friday so that they could walk with their grandfather, Woodard Burch of Mount Olive, in the survivors' lap.

It was not Allen's first trip. Coming back was an easy decision.

"I walked with him last year, so I decided I was going to walk with him this year as well," he said. "I like doing it. There are a lot of luminarias, that is for sure, and a lot of people. It is just good to be here. The bands are awesome. They are cool."

Wesley was at Wayne County's Relay for the first time.

He wanted to be there, he said, to celebrate his granddad's 11th anniversary of being a cancer survivor.

After his Wayne County debut, he was headed back home, to participate in the Carteret County Relay.

Also walking Friday was Otis Eason.

The 55-year-old cancer survivor has been to many Relay for Life events and proudly taken his spot in survivors' laps -- but not by himself for the last few.

By his side is Lexus, his daughter's 5-year-old boxer.

Janet Eason dyes the dog purple each year -- as a tribute to her dad, who battled prostate cancer -- and won.

For now, though, it is just Otis and Lexus -- neither is part of a team, although the Wayne Community College employee does join up with the college team for a few laps later in the evening.

But next year, Janet has other plans. Otis and Lexus will have a team of their own -- and the purple pup will raise money to fight cancer by posing for pictures with children.

Kaye Harrell of Grantham has participated in the Relay since 2002 after being diagnosed and treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"Everything is fine now," Kaye said.

But now that she knows what it means to hear the words "you have cancer," she knows just how important the Relay can be not only for her, but for those who will come after her.

"It is most important because without research and the money for the research, there would be no cure and I would not be here. When my doctor told me I had six to eight months to live without treatments -- so that is how important it is, and there are millions of people who are in the shoes I was in back in 2001," Kaye said.

And being at Relay means being among friends, she added.

"You feel you are alone when you are first diagnosed with cancer, but you are really not. And when you come to an event like this, you see that you really are not alone," she said. "Look at all these bags (luminarias) that represent just a fraction of the people just in Wayne County who are diagnosed and deal with cancer every single year.

This is the victory lap for survivors or people who are still going through treatments. The first time I participated I was still going through treatment and I was hoping to become a survivor, and I have. It is important to have friends, family and events like this so you do know that you are not alone."

That's also why Tim Matthews participates.

The 39-year-old has survived thyroid cancer for nearly four years. And although he has had cancer, he thinks of others and not himself.

"I just feel like I need to come and support everybody else who has cancer, too," he said. "It shows a lot of support from the community."

Like Otis, he is a team of one -- there to make sure others who are struggling with the disease know they are not alone.

With him again this year is his son, who as a member of Boy Scout Troop 14 has set up the luminarias for the past three years. Tim is also part of that crew.

Dr. Ellen Brubeck of Mount Olive has participated in the Relay for several years as a member of the O'Berry Center team. This year, she made the lap as a survivor of breast cancer.

She was first diagnosed in October 2007 and had surgery soon after. She finished chemotherapy in January.

"I am feeling great, and I am so thankful to God who has been so good to me," she said. "I have been well taken care of, and I am grateful to be here."

Her husband, Ray, noted that his wife's hair "is coming back curly like she wanted."

"I think it (Relay) is vitally important -- for the relationships that are bounded here; to be with other people who have been through similar situations; and to bring the community together," Ellen said. "Anything that brings a community together, a common cause, is wonderful."

Hiawatha Jones of Golds-boro came out Friday, too.

She was one of the many in the crowd cheering on the survivors as they made their way around the track.

Her joy at seeing the community's response was paired with the thoughts of the mother she lost to cancer 20 years ago.

It was nice to see so many still care enough to work to find a cure that was too late for her mother, but not for others.

"It makes my heart glad," she said.

She has been an active participant in the Relay for years.

"We have a booth, and we have been working hard to get information out about cancer -- to be checked and to keep faith and strength in God and pray," she said. "I am really enjoying it tonight."

She added that the crowd appeared to be the biggest she had ever seen at a Relay.

"It is tremendous, and the walk was just excellent," she said. "It just brought tears to me to see everybody walking and to see survivors, and there seems to be more survivors this year, and that is really great. I can't say enough about the Wayne County Relay For Life."