By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
RIVERVIEW – Conquering cancer by raising awareness and money for better treatments and cures is the finish line for the Riverview-Trenton Relay for Life, sponsored by the American Cancer Society.
The annual local event, held May 21 at Young Patriots Park, 14300 Sibley Road, hosted 11 teams, using the walking track encircling the pond southeast of Riverview Memorial Library.
Live entertainment, a silent auction, food, fun and reflection, as well as participant camaraderie, are key components of the relay’s success.
As an ACS fundraiser, Relay for Life is held worldwide, organized and run by local volunteers.
The events, usually day-long, begin with cancer survivors walking the first lap, followed by an opening lap for all participants.
Cancer survivors are defined by the ACS as anyone who has ever been diagnosed with cancer, whether they are symptom free or still fighting it.
Luminary and candlelight vigils held at the close of the relay remembers those lost to cancer, and honors survivors.
A closing ceremony recognizes team achievements, and encourages participants to take specific steps to spread awareness of cancer prevention, treatments and research.
John Sutherland of Riverview is a member of team “Justin > cancer” now in its fourth year, with 37 team members. He said participants solicit donations for Relay for Life based on their participation, not on the numbers of laps they walk or the time they spend on the track.
“Our group was formed when my son was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so that’s what made us aware of this cause,” he said. “I think that is what draws people in – it’s touched a family member, or them, or a loved one.”
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the white blood cells, lymphocytes, part of the body’s immune system.
As he walks laps, Sutherland realizes how fortunate his family was with their son’s cancer outcome.
“The research had come to a point where it made the type of cancer that he had very treatable and very curable,” Sutherland said. “Many forms of cancer are still out there that aren’t as treatable and curable.”
His wife, team captain Cindi Sutherland, said the back of their team shirts list the names of 33 people they honor by walking in Relay for Life, some who survived cancer and some who did not.
“Unfortunately, we keep adding people to our shirts,” she said. “We are hoping that someday that number won’t grow.”
Cindi Sutherland said she is very thankful her son is now cancer-free.
“We are very blessed, and that is one of the reasons we do this, because we are able to,” she said. “There are families that aren’t able to do this.”
She said they would love to see a cure for all forms of cancer.
Cindi Sutherland said the 11 teams had $25,000 in pledges before the Riverview-Trenton Relay for Life event started, and she hopes more money will be raised for the ACS during the event.
Her son, cancer survivor Justin Sutherland, 22, has walked in Relay for Life since 2013, when his Hodgkin’s lymphoma was in remission.
He said it is remarkable to see so many people supporting the ACS through Relay for Life.
“This walk they do all over the place,” Justin Sutherland said. “It gives a lot of hope to people, especially those who are still fighting (cancer).”
He wishes more people would become involved with Relay for Life.
“A few years ago we had (team) tents all around the pond,” Justin Sutherland said. “Attendance has dwindled a little bit, but the spirit is still there.”
He said he lives his life differently now that he’s cancer-free.
“It changes your outlook on life when you are given a second chance,” he said.
Jody Slavin of Riverview, a thyroid cancer survivor, and her neighbor, Melissa Eldredge, a 10-year melanoma survivor, are joined by 16 of Slavin’s relatives on the Stride team.
Slavin said when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer seven years ago she had surgery and radioactive iodine treatments, and will be on medication for the rest of her life.
Five years ago she was given a Relay for Life flier, which inspired her to form a team with her extended family.
Slavin, who is on the event leadership team, said each relay is an emotional time for her.
“I have to go up there and speak during some of the ceremonies, and try to hold my emotions together, because cancer has touched everybody,” Slavin said. “Everybody’s lost someone, everybody knows someone who’s fighting the battle.”
When asking for pledges, Slavin tells potential donors that Relay for Life volunteers are trying to “finish the fight.”
“We want to do our part to bring an end to this terrible disease,” Slavin said, “or at least find better ways to detect it earlier, or prevent it, or whatever we can do to get rid of this terrible disease.”
She said she always encourages people to fight back against cancer, and how important it is to spread awareness.
“Relay for Life is open to everyone,” Slavin said. “Everyone is welcome to come and fight back with us.”
Lauren Bozzo, 17, a senior a Riverview Community High School, and a member of the school’s Diversity Club, which tries to model acceptance and kindness to other people, said the club participates annually during Relay for Life.
She said the Diversity Club members participate in Relay for Life in memory of loved ones, and light luminary bags for them at the closing ceremony.
Bozzo said both of her grandmothers died of cancer, as did two of her mother’s uncles.
This is her fifth year as a participant, and she said she tells classmates that Relay for Life is a great event.
“It helps so many people,” she said. “It gives so many people hope, and that’s what our club is all about, giving people hope.”
(Sue Suchyta can be reached at [email protected].)