Twenty seven years and one month ago, I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Thanks to educational materials from the American Cancer Society, I had spotted the change in my mole immediately, got treatment early, and became a long term cancer survivor. The educational role of the American Cancer Society is one reason why I have been a supporter of that organization for many years.
During those 27 years unfortunately a very long list of friends and relatives have not survived cancer. Among those whose memories I donate to the ACS are: my aunt Mildred Greer French who died from multiple forms of cancer including a melanoma brain tumor 7 years before my own diagnosis, my cousin Becky Crittenden who died from breast cancer in her mid-thirties leaving behind a husband and two small children, my dear friend Andy's wife Juliet Singer who died from relatively rare uterine tumor when their daughter was two, one of my best friends Ellen Hoffman a life long non-smoker and professor of communications at University of Pittsburgh Johnstown from lung cancer in her forties, my father-in-law Jimmy Pitt who died of lung cancer.
Over the past decades I have regularly donated to the ACS and to several breast cancer organizations, but I had never participated in a Relay for Life event or been a member of a relay team. This year for the first time in nearly a decade some of my friends at the college were motivated to create a relay team -- driven largely by the hard work and enthusiasm of Mitch Caudill who has been the single thread of continuity in our campus's tiny library through a revolving door of six professional librarians in 13 years. The tall guy at the survivor's table is Mitch.
Mitch convinced me to acknowledge myself as a survivor and participate in the survivor ceremonies. At first I was reluctant to do so. Since I was vigilant and caught my melanoma early, I did not have to suffer through chemo or radiation. Sure, I'd had a potentially very deadly form of cancer, and it had made an indelible imprint on me and how I viewed life, but I felt like I'd gotten off easy. But with Mitch's encouragement I did participate, and it was an incredibly meaningful experience to be up on that stage, to listen to all the others' stories and briefly share my own. Turns out there were four other malignant melanoma survivors in the group.
After the survivor ceremonies came the rest of the (very, very long) night. I don't know how Relay is done outside of eastern Kentucky, but here, the Relay lasts from six PM to six AM. This was the first time in nearly twenty years that I stayed awake all night (either by design or by insomnia). While everyone does some walking on the track, and relay teams try to keep at least one member walking through at least the first two-thirds of the night, the walking part of the relay tends to be played down here, with more emphasis on "spirit" through a variety of games and activities. What we lacked in experience (almost all of the other teams had been participating for many years), we made up for in enthusiasm. The photo (left) shows several of my team mates working on the words to our own Relay relevant words set to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." For almost no rehearsal, we gave a pretty credible performance.
After about midnight, there was considerable attrition around the Relay track, the majority of non-team members -- children/parents/friends -- went home to bed, and even a fairly large number of team members gave up and went home. In several cases entire teams left. Our group dwindled from 11 team members and about 20 family members to just six dedicated team members. By sheer coincidence, our chosen Relay night, turned out to be misty and unseasonably cold: thermometer readings stayed in the low 50's, but a brisk little wind from about 2 AM on was chilling. None of us had really come prepared for the weather, we all had sweatshirts, and light throws, when what we need were jackets, hats, gloves and sleeping bags or quilts. A fire would have really been welcome. Also we'd brought lots of food, but it was all summer time, cold fair -- there were a LOT of left over ice cold beverages, but no one had any hot drinks.
The best part of the experience was getting the chance to talk to and get to know one of my fellow workers -- Angela. Angela and I are the same age. We first met when Angela's daughter Sandy was one of my students at my previous job -- a college in near by Virginia. Then six years after Sandy was my student, she became my office mate at Southeast for seven years until a new building was completed that gave us all separate offices. A couple of years ago, Angela who had worked as a nurses aid for most of her career, came to work at the college in the maintenance department. I see Angela almost every day, but she has little time to talk, as the maintenance department is vastly understaffed and overworked. Being more than a decade older than our other team members, Angela and I teamed up to walk together, and huddle against the cold together.
Relay night was a rewarding experience and one that I would not have missed. I especially treasure the time spent with Angela and the other members of my team. However, I think next year I'm going to donate money, and stay at home to sleep in my own comfortable bed!