POULSBO — Cancer touches everyone in some way, often leaving sadness and loss in its wake.
But for the participants of the 2017 North Kitsap Relay for Life, July 14-15 at North Kitsap Stadium, there was reason for celebration and hope: Celebration of those who have survived, celebration of advances in cancer research, and hope for a cancer-free tomorrow.
The event raised more than $37,000 for the American Cancer Society.
The theme, “Revved Up For A Cure,” recalled the 1950s and had some participants dressed in clothing from that era — poodle skirts, bobby socks and saddle shoes. Others wore purple, the color for cancer survivors.
In the survivors’ tent, the “Chick Boom Café,” hosted by Kathi Trostad and her daughter, Anna Menne, offered survivors and their caregivers a place to sit, grab a treat and visit.
Others took to the track, walking countless miles for those who have passed away, those who are fighting the battle, and those holding onto hope for a cure.
Every step taken was another reminder for survivors, caregivers and friends to never take life for granted — to love, service, comfort and encourage those afflicted.
A prayer at the opening ceremony July 14, blessed the efforts made for this year’s Relay For Life — and reminded those there that cancer does not have the last word, love does.
Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson shared her family’s struggles with cancer. Her husband, after a bout with bladder cancer, has been cancer free for two years.
Erickson’s mother, however, was not so fortunate.
“We lost my mom to kidney cancer in 2006,” she said. “And my father, 94 years old, is a survivor of colon and prostate cancer.”
Adrian Alegria, a military retiree, was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2015. He first knew he had a problem when he saw traces of blood in his urine.
“I didn’t know how to react,” he said. He soon received a prognosis and underwent extensive surgery to remove a five-pound kidney. The surgery left a 14-inch scar.
Alegria told of the emotions experienced by those touched by cancer, and encouraged participants to “look to the track for hope.”
“There are others here that have struggled with exactly with what you’ve been through,” he said. “Speak with them, share your story, and love them for it.”
Survivors were welcomed onto the track for the first lap of the relay at roughly 7:15 p.m. The evening sun cast a golden light on the track.
They walked to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” Later in the evening, Las Vegas’s No. 1-voted Elvis impersonator, Jeffrey Fullner, performed.
While many participants were from Kitsap, many others traveled miles to participate.
Valerie Hiett and her grandson traveled nearly two hours from Milton. They said they planned to sleep in their car when they grew tired on the track.
Hiett served 17 years in the U.S. Navy. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999.
“I’d always done self-exams,” she said. “But I noticed something was odd.”
It turned out to be DCIS — ductal carcinoma in situ — inside a milk duct.
“That’s when I was bombarded with all the ‘ologists’,” she said.
Because of the abnormal shape and location of the mass, doctors removed and then reconstructed her entire right breast. She spent a year recovering before she resumed her usual life. However, in 2012, during a follow-up appointment on a torn rotator cuff, she was diagnosed with breast cancer again in the same area. Treatment was aggressive, with several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
Hiett said what kept her fighting was her faith.
“My relationship with Jesus Christ,” she said, “knowing that I can lean on Him and fight helped me through. Whether I live or pass in this life, I know I’ve won.”
Hiett, who was raised in Compton, California in the 1950s, said she’s known her share of struggle but said a positive attitude can help tremendously.
“It’s how you project life,” she said. “You have to be a light in the darkness. Disease is a dark place. Finding your light can make a huge difference.”
Of the Relay, she said, “It’s wonderful to have other people know your experience and know you’re not alone. Anytime a story is told and a person is touched, it makes a difference.”
Survivor Deborah Moran walked for her dear friend, Claire Coupez, who recently lost her battle with lung cancer at the age of 55.
Moran said cancer is no respecter of time. “My mother was diagnosed on a Friday and died on Monday. It doesn’t care,” she said.
A few laps later, a peppy Bill Sprague passed by, walking for his wife Mary.
“My wife is a survivor,” he said. “So I’m out here supporting her struggle and those of our family members.”
Back at the T.C.W. tent, Mary and her twin sister Joanne Barnes sold homemade goods to raise funds for Relay.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Mary said. “I’ve had two surgeries, chemo and radiation. I’m here for my kids, my husband and everyone who’s supported me.”
Barnes told of her late husband Wayne’s battle.
“He was diagnosed May 31, 2014. And he lost his job the following day,” she said.
He died two months later.
“On Aug. 3, 2014, at 1:40,” her daughter, Rachel said.
Whether participants walked for themselves or others, event co-leader Betty Petersen said, “We’ve had people on the track all night.”
Nearly 12 hours later, Alegria’s mother-in-law, Laurna Starrett of Lake Stevens, said she didn’t remember how many laps she’d walked.
“Cancer runs in our family line. We have a long history of cancer in our family,” she said. “I walk because it’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’ it’s going to hit us again.”
She added, “ ‘Cancer’ is a bad word in our family. I want to get rid of it for my grandchildren and their children.”
Poulsbo Walmart department manager Laurie Younger, a cancer survivor, was taking down her team’s tent. Some 23 Poulsbo Walmart associates helped her raise nearly $2,400.
Exhausted and sore, she looked to her eight-year-old granddaughter, Emma, pulling a wagon across the field.
“She was my fighting cause. I wanted to live to see her grow up,” she said.
Three years ago, Emma, then 5, and Younger’s husband Cameron walked a combined 45 miles for Relay.
Emma proudly stated this year, “I helped Grandma beat cancer.”
At the closing ceremony, Rebecca VanLoon spoke of her personal courage to “come out” as a survivor.
“I remember my first Relay as a survivor,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to walk in the survivors’ lap. I didn’t want that look of pity when I told someone, ‘I had cancer,’ and I felt guilty to be alive. I didn’t feel like I had suffered enough.
“But later, something clicked in my head. It doesn’t matter what type of struggles you’ve had — if you’ve heard the words, ‘You have cancer,’ then you have suffered enough.”
These days, VanLoon said, she’s a “proud survivor.”
“I can’t make a difference if I’m hiding by being a survivor,” she said. “My goal is to empower others through my story. My goal is that my nieces will never have to hear those words, and if they do, it will be followed by, ‘But there’s a cure.’
“We need to make North Kitsap more aware of the struggles of cancer. Men, women, children, it has no preference. It affects us all.”
— Sophie Bonomi is a reporter with Kitsap News Group. Contact her at email@example.com.