Relay for Life: A personal crusade for some; for others a chance to fight the terror of cancer

By Rozella Hardin
STAR STAFF
rhardin@starhq.com

   The American Cancer Society Relay for Life is only a 12-hour event, but long before the first lap is walked, scores of volunteers have spent countless hours preparing for the night.
   This year, 30 Carter County teams participated in the Carter County Relay, which was held Friday evening at the Elizabethton High School Track. When the last lap had been walked early Saturday morning, some $51,000 had been raised for the signature event -- almost $1,000 per person in Carter County. "We still will receive some money, and hopefully before all is said and done, we will have $56,000," said Mike Hardin, who co-chaired this year's event with Diane Morris.
   For many, the work began late last year, as teams began gearing up for the July summer night, when the common theme is to have members of teams continuously walking around a track for 12 hours to honor those surviving cancer, those who have died from it, and the efforts of all who fight it.
   For some team captains, the Relay event has become a personal crusade; for others it is a way to "fight" a disease, which has touched every family, church, business and institution in every community.
   Sherry Leonard, who with Joyce Markland are co-captains of the Elizabethton Snap-on Tools Team, said the Relay is a positive way of dealing with the losses she has had from cancer. "I lost my mother and sister to cancer, as well as my father-in-law. My dad is now suffering from cancer. I have plenty of reason to be here," said Leonard, who has been involved in the Carter County Relay for Life for two years. "It's hard work, and it involves a lot of time, but it's compelling to me. While I feel like I have to be here, it also helps ease the pain I feel. It's my way of dealing with the loss," she added.
   Leonard and Markland began last November organizing the Snap-on team. "It's a plant-wide effort. Everyone gets involved, and we enjoy great support from plant management as well as at the corporate level. If they didn't, we couldn't do it," Markland said.
   Fund-raising events for the various teams have included everything from yard sales, bake sales and car washes to giving away prizes. Some groups have even hosted benefit singings and sponsored dinners.
   The Snap-on team, which included 21 persons, on Friday night sold nachos, cupcakes, popcorn and hotdogs at their campsite, and at the same time kept someone on the track walking all night.
   "So many people in my family have been affected by cancer. So many of our employees' families have been affected," said Markland. This is the second year for the Snap-on team, and they came into Friday night's event with almost $3,000 from their fund-raising efforts.
   For Lewis Honeycutt, an employee of the Elizabethton Electric System, his involvement began seven years ago when he walked in the event. "I walked for a year or two, and I decided to get more involved. For me, it's a pleasure to walk for someone, and to put my time into the Relay," Honeycutt said.
   Honeycutt is in charge of logistics for the Relay, which means helping with the campsites; making sure everyone has electricity that needs it; putting up a stage; obtaining sand for the luminaries, etc. "Whatever needs to be done, I'll do it," said Honeycutt, who works most of the day Thursday and all day Friday getting ready for the event. He then stays all night, working and walking in the fight against cancer.
   This year's event included approximately 120 cancer survivors participating in the Victory Lap, which kicked off the event. Among those survivors were Sam and Betty Jo Barker, who served as honorary chairpersons for this year's Relay. The Barkers have been involved in the local Relay for Life from its beginning 10 years ago. Up until this year, Barker served as luminary chairman. "It's just overwhelming to walk around the track and read the names on the luminaries -- people who have died from cancer, and people who have survived. And, there are some names on those bags of people who are still fighting cancer," Barker said.
   He noted that the first year, there were not very many luminaries. "We spaced them about 10 to 12 feet apart and used about five five-gallon buckets of sand," he noted. This year, the luminary count was approximately 2,000, and approximately 25 five-gallon buckets of sand were needed. The luminaries lined the outer circle of the track and were about halfway around the inner circle of the track -- and were only placed about one foot apart. "We're winning the battle," said a proud Barker, who noted that more and more of the luminaries read "in honor" rather than "in memory."
   "I can't think of a better effort to be involved in than the Relay for Life. For me, it's a celebration of life," Barker said.
   Friday night's event also had its more somber moments as more than 800 names were read of people who had lost the battle to cancer. From time to time, a tear fell on the track as someone paused at a luminary, which had printed on it the name of a husband, a wife, or a friend who had lost the battle. Around midnight after the luminaries had been burning brightly for about two hours, a young girl leaving the track with her parents carried the luminary which had her grandmother's name and picture on it. So young, but already the fight had begun with her.
   Perhaps Lewis Honeycutt gave the best reason for being at the Relay Friday night: "When I see people sick from cancer and see their pain, I not only feel a lot of gratitude for my good health, but it makes me want to do something to help. One day, I feel we will find a cure for cancer. We already have found new treatments. More people are surviving it. We must make people more aware of the need to get check-ups; and the more people that get involved, the greater the chance of licking cancer."
   Just as terrorism is a threat to every American, so much more is the terror of cancer. It strikes without warning, and this year one out of three persons is expected to be diagnosed with cancer.