Come for an hour or all night: Everybody’s invited to help fight cancer!

relay-shirtBy PENNY FLETCHER

More than $40,000 has already been raised by the 40 South County teams that have signed up to participate in this year’s Relay for Life of Southshore East.

Last year’s goal of $103,000 was exceeded by $1,000 and organizers say this year promises to be even better.
“More than 600 participants are signed on to help raise money,” said Cathy Vallianatos, community representative for Hillsborough County’s southeast unit of the American Cancer Society based in Brandon. “It goes for research, to help families directly, to educate people, help caregivers and many other things.”

Vallianatos said she is especially proud of the Hope Lodge next to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

“People coming from a distance with their caregiver can stay there free while receiving treatment,” Villianatos said. The caregiver also stays without charge.

A similar home-like facility operates at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, she explained.

But the cancer society provides many other benefits for families, caregivers and the community, she said.

One direct help to South County was to send Riverview’s former Honorary Mayor, Lisa Kennedy, to the headquarters of the American Cancer Society in Atlanta for training in recruiting volunteers.

Kennedy got involved with fighting cancer through the local chambers of commerce while Honorary Mayor of Riverview and chaired its Committee for Preventative Study during last year’s Relay for Life. This year, she has taken on the job of chairing the entire EBHS event.

This year’s theme is “Story Book,” and teams may dress and decorate areas and booths as their favorite characters, from Harry Potter to Big Bird.

Some form of music and family games and entertainment will continue all night with one member from each team on the field at all times to demonstrate the fact that “cancer never sleeps” and to emphasize the stages those who have been diagnosed go through- passing from daylight through the darkest hours and finally into the dawn.

Each year, approximately 5,200 communities in 20 countries participate in a similar event, each choosing its own theme and carrying out its plans independently at the local level.

The similarity country-wide is that the Relay starts with an opening ceremony that includes inspiring talks, followed by a cancer survivor’s lap, a lap by their caregivers, and then a lap with all teams on the field. After a full day of activities, there is a luminary ceremony at 9 p.m. and luminaries may either be bought online now at www.RelayForLife.org where readers may also find out more about the local event. They may also purchase luminaries at the event right up until time for the ceremony.

The teams and volunteers have already had car washes, bake sales, garage sales and more to raise funds.

“They have been very creative,” Kennedy said.

The two teams that have made the most money so far are Ruskin’s Riverside Club with 28 team members led by Richard Romano that has brought in $7,450 and Summerfield Elementary School’s team of 27 members led by Julie Infanti that has netted $7,414.

The top three business sponsors are Mosaic, the law firm of W. Dale Gabbra and McRoberts Sales Co. Inc.
“Everything helps,” Vallianatos said. “Every year 113,400 people in Florida are diagnosed.”

Yet nationally, 14 million cancer survivors will celebrate another birthday this year, many with the help from the American Cancer Society.

The Keynote speaker will be Honorary Survivor Karen Lewendowski, a 51-year-old former Hospice client who continues to outlive her original diagnosis, has gone through remissions and battles, and yet continues in college classes to earn her Liberal Arts Degree and in May will be graduating with honors.

“Every person’s cancer has a first name,” Lewendowski told me. “The name of the cancer I dance with is Metastatic Breast Cancer.  My rogue cells began in my right breast and have traveled to my bones and my right lung.  This is my normal.”

“From days of treatments to weeks of exhaustion, survivors struggle with living, healing, and sharing the depth of their loss. As you journey around the track, you will see the results of the months of work that our volunteers have spent.  These volunteers have a very special connection with the cancer community and the members of the ‘cancer club.’  As you pass these volunteers please remember that they are caretakers, family, friends and even survivors that are here to make this event memorable and something that will encourage you to continue to strive forward with your connection to the community.  Without their passion, dedication and desire – we would not be here to celebrate and honor our loved ones,” she continued.

Caretakers, friends, families, social media connections and prayers are what are described as having helped her, and the others, through their longest days.

The main long-term goal of the American Cancer Society is to see that no one ever hears the diagnosis of cancer again.

“That is why our research is so very important,” said Vallianatos. “Some of the money from this year’s relay will go towards our third big study. The first study was the one that linked smoking and lung cancer. Now we need about 300,000 more people between the ages of 30 and 65 who haven’t had cancer (with a couple of technical exceptions). We need to follow them and compare their lifestyles, eating habits and many other factors to learn what precedes the diagnosis. This can only be done over time.”

This study is fully explained on the American Cancer Society’s main website, www.cancer.org. There will be a booth at the event where people can ask questions about this study or sign up to participate.

This year’s Relay is the 12th for South County and is celebrated the same year as the American Cancer Society’s 100th birthday.

“We make a difference,” Vallianatos said. “We help people stay well, help people get well, work to find cures, and help families fight back- directly, through helping the survivor and the caregiver. Come out for an hour, or for the whole 18-hour event. Every person, every dollar helps.”

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