Survivors, sufferers assemble in solidarity at Relay for Life

By Abbi Overfelt

September 27, 2013

LAURINBURG — Thousands packed the Pate Stadium stands on Friday night — not for a Fighting Scots football game, but to cheer on the winners of a greater struggle.

As of Wednesday, Scotland County’s 17th Relay for Life has raised over $210,000 so far for the American Cancer Society with the help of local corporations and teams from businesses, organizations, and churches. Those supporters took to the track on Friday to dedicate 24 sleepless hours to solidarity with cancer survivors.

“It’s not just white — it’s Puerto Rican, Asian, black Americans, we all have this thing,” said Barbara Powell, a Campbell’s Soup sponsor, as she lapped the track on Friday. “So when we come together like this it gives you strength and hope that one day, this too shall pass.”

For cancer survivors, though their cancer may pass into remission, fear of recurrence always lingers. Jenny Ellis’ cancer began two years ago, in a raised spot on her hand no larger than the size of a pencil eraser.

“I never thought it would happen to me,” she said. “I would think, ‘You know what, a tan is OK, I won’t use sunscreen.’ But it wasn’t OK.”

Nowadays, Ellis’ skin is not so brown, and her forearm sports a large scar where doctors scraped cancerous cells from her bone, on their second — and successful — attempt at removing the melanoma that had progressed to stage 4.

Since then, she has had about 50 suspicious spots removed, but they have all been skin-deep.

“So far I’ve been blessed that they’re on the surface. I’m good. God is good.”

Ellis says she has also been blessed to be able to influence her friends to slather on the sunscreen and forgo long hours spent under artificial sunlight. But, she says, sometimes you can do everything to prevent cancer and it still creeps up. Her husband, who had regular check-ups and never missed a colonoscopy, died of colon cancer three years ago.

“God has a plan,” she said, surrounded by her family members under a shady tent that overlooked the track. “You might not like his plan, but you have to accept his plan.”

Relay officially began at 3:30 p.m., with teams walking for several hours before the opening ceremonies, which provided for an earlier closing ceremony today, Relay co-organizer Carol Thomas said,

To kick off the opening ceremonies, more than 300 cancer survivors, both those whose cancer is in remission and those still undergoing treatment, performed an honorary lap of the track while their names were read over the loudspeaker and their friends and families applauded.

Sarah Gillespie of Rockingham participated in the survivor’s lap with her six-year-old son Kenny, who is currently being treated for leukemia.

“It’s emotional — I cried the whole way,” she said. “He was really just excited to play with everybody, but I cried. It’s very emotional and great to know that everybody is coming together for a good cause.”

This year’s featured survivor speaker, Jess Seals, also battled cancer at an early age. The Prospect Elementary School student was diagnosed in June 2011 with a Stage IV desmoplastic small round blue cell tumor, a rare cancer with less than a 20 percent rate of survival.

Jess’ family was initially told that treatment would involve a year of radiation and chemotherapy.

“On October 9, 2011, by the grace of God, I was cancer free,” said Jess. “In November, I had my stem cell transplant, and by February 14, 2012, I was finished with all my treatments… . Without Relay for Life, and the research, I wouldn’t be here to celebrate my 13th birthday tomorrow.”

New this year was the “I”m Walking for You” banner, which is carried around the track from the beginning of Relay and through the opening and luminary ceremonies for 24 continuous hours.

“We wanted to make sure that we had a walker representing everyone on the track for the entire 24 hours,” Thomas said. “Cancer patients have cancer 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, so we want to make sure that we are in the fight for 24 whole hours.”