05/31/09 — Hope, fellowship, remembrance keep campfires burning at Relay for Life

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Hope, fellowship, remembrance keep campfires burning at Relay for Life

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 31, 2009 12:23 AM

Anita Lanier is no stranger to Relay for Life.

Her father-in-law lost his battle with brain cancer years ago.

But something happened Friday evening that made the meaning of this year's event much more potent.

Her father, Bill Sawrey, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer last week.

And Wednesday, he underwent surgery to have it removed.

So when her phone rang just before the event's official kickoff, the words she heard left her certain that sometimes, prayers are answered.

"His margins are clear," Mrs. Lanier said. "They got it all."

She was among thousands who braved thunderstorms and the occasional wind gust to take part in Wayne County's 2009 Relay.

And by Saturday morning, it showed -- to the tune of more than $525,000 raised, with thousands yet to be counted.

Friday's kickoff was an emotional scene -- crowds cheering county cancer survivors on during the ceremonial first lap; tears falling during long embraces.

And then ... a celebration.

All eyes were on the sky -- following the mass of purple balloons released by the survivors -- when Miss Goldsboro Molly Deans performed the national anthem.

And when Goldsboro Mayor Pro-Tem Chuck Allen and Dr. I-Wen Chang spoke, their words were greeted with cheers and applause.

"I can't believe anybody could have had this big a dream," Allen said, looking out across the 90-some campsites and thousands of residents on hand.

Dr. Chang was overwhelmed, too, by what she called a "noble cause."

She talked about how Wayne ranked first in the state in money raised for the Relay effort in 2008 -- how the size of this year's crowd showed just how committed local residents are to fighting the No. 2 killer of Americans.

"The fight against cancer remains a top ... priority," she said. "And together, I truly think we can work toward the goal."

But curing cancer, she added, is not an easy task.

In fact, a recent study suggests there will be a 45 percent increase in new cases by 2030, she said.

Even so, "there is still hope."

And when the speeches concluded, event co-chairs lit a torch meant to spread that hope.

The next several hours saw children eating hot dogs and apple jacks, games played and stories shared.

Evening thunderstorms added to the fellowship -- as thousands were forced to squeeze under tents during each downpour -- but left many of the 6,000-plus luminarias gracing the track destroyed.

So when the time came to make them glow, many removed the candles and placed them where the paper bags stood before the weather nearly washed them away.

Shane Walker was among those salvaging a tribute.

Maybe that is why he held the freshly lit candle burning for his niece, Carrie, with both hands before placing it along a sidewalk.

"She wouldn't have minded the rain," he said, wiping away a tear before allowing himself to smile. "A little water is nothing compared to cancer."

Some of the flames were still burning Saturday morning during the annual Kids Walk, thanks to those walking the track with lighters before sunrise.

And then, hours later, another Relay came to an end.

Officials called the event a "great success," despite the state of the weather Friday and a tough economic climate that left donation totals lower Saturday morning than they were at the same time last year.

"We're just tickled to death," said Debbie Pennell, a member of the Relay board. "Wayne County is awesome."

Mrs. Lanier is already thinking about next year -- about what it might feel like to walk around that track with her 87-year-old father.

"I cried when they did the Survivors Lap. I said, 'Next year, Daddy can do that,'" she said. "Cancer really does touch everybody. If you don't know somebody (battling) today, you probably will next week."