By Jenny Neyman
Though 10-year-old Joey Workowski, of Nikiski, was wearing a purple “survivor” shirt at the Central Kenai Peninsula Relay for Life event last weekend at the Soldotna Sports Center, cancer wasn’t the first thing on his mind.
Even the worst of his worst experiences undergoing two and a half years of treatment for leukemia were superceded by matters far more attractive to the attention of a fifth-grader: There were games to play, after all, and horses to ride and bands to listen to and food to eat and the nervous excitement of being a guest speaker.
Even in that role, as a short-brown-haired, bespeckled kid in a too-big purple shirt stepping up to the mic and delivering a speech to the crowd, he wasn’t, in his head, Joey with cancer. Asking him why he was a guest speaker required a prompt from his mom, Laura Niemczyk.
“Because I was speaking to the high school at the minirelay at Nikiski High School (an event held May 23 as a fundraiser for the larger Central Peninsula Relay for Life),” Joey said. “And Jonah asked me if I wanted to be the guest speaker for the… .”
“Yes, but what kind of guest speaker are you? What are you wearing that shirt for?” Niemczyk interjected.
“Oh, because I’m a survivor guest speaker,” he said.
In a larger sense, yes, his speech was about cancer. He gave an outline of his experience with leukemia. How, at age 4 ½, he became sick — excessively tired and not wanting to eat or walk anywhere.
“I thought he was anemic, dehydrated,” Niemczyk said. “We walked into an emergency room and took a quick little blood test and the bottom fell out of everything we planned.”
Living in Washington at the time, he was rushed to Seattle Children’s Hospital, where he began 39 months of chemotherapy treatment, with all the ups and downs, and literal pins, needles and bumps along the way.
“Some of the medicine I had to take made me hurt and stuff. My steroids, I had an allergic reaction to it and it made me really itchy,” Joey said.
“The number-one leukemia-fighting kids drug, he was mildly allergic to it. Oh yeah, that was fun,” Niemczyk said.
But though the topic was cancer, the point was something much more than that — living through it, getting past it and thanking those who helped with all aspects along the way.
“We wanted an adventure, and we weren’t about to let his cancer slow us down,” Niemczyk said of why, during Joey’s treatment, they moved from Washington to Nikiski.
They like it here, Joey said, especially the wildlife — though not the big moose when they act scary at his bus stop, he
said. And the chattery, toothy-grinned ball of energy likes life, especially since he finished chemo treatment.
“I’ve been out for two years and five months — not that I’m counting,” Joey said. “I like that I don’t have to worry about the cancer and stuff, and I can do sports. I like soccer and basketball.”
He doesn’t even mind being a public speaker.
“It’s scary at first but, normally, once I start talking I can’t really stop,” he said, as his mom gave a wide, almost eye-rolling head nod to affirm that statement.
“It’s about all the stuff I can remember about chemo, and about why I relay,” Joey said of his speech.
To Joey, he’s a kid who happened to have leukemia, and also happens to like soccer and basketball, and happens to attend Nikiski North Star Elementary School, and happens to get nervous when moose come around while he’s waiting at his bus stop. Cancer is a detail of his life, not the defining characteristic of it, and not — as his mom cries with relief while listening to him speak — the end of it.
“It’s very emotional for me,” said Niemczyk. “But I’m really proud of him, and he’s turning into a good public speaker. And we had a good outcome so we’re more than happy to share his story and help inspire others to keep fighting the fight and raise money. It makes me cry every time.”
Hers aren’t the only eyes to well up during the event. Many other tears of relief are shed during the survivors walk, with
105 people in purple shirts taking the first lap of the relay, and bringing out their caregivers to walk with them for a second lap. Other eyes are dampened in frustration, fear and pain for those still in the fight against cancer. And some tears are born of sadness for those whose fight is over. They were memorialized through the luminaria ceremony Friday night — lit candles flickering in paper sacks along the relay track decorated to honor the memory of lost loved ones.
Though part of the purpose of Relay for Life is to memorialize those who have died from cancer, it is much more about celebrating life, instilling hope, raising awareness and generating money.
The event feels more like a festival than anything with funerary overtones. People come in costumes, wacky hats and other goofy garb, and most participants are decked out in bright shirts — purple for survivors, yellow for volunteers, and a few red shirts to designate those raising $1,000 or more. This year that honor went to Peggy Rogers ($2,433), Neal DuPerron ($1,390) and Nora Ribbens ($1,313). The top fundraising teams were Heritage Place/Central Peninsula Hospital ($9,122), Nikiski Bulldogs ($8,783) and WalMart Warriors ($6,849).
Live music pumped out from the stage to keep participants energized through the event, stretching from opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. Friday straight through until 2 p.m. Saturday. While not walking there was plenty else to do — eat, listen to music or participate in the booths and games. Each relay team is asked to operate some sort of fundraiser, explained Susan Smalley, one of the event organizers. There’s the standard carnival fare, like a dart throw and sponge toss — in which Joey served as an enthusiastic volunteer target to get his face soaked with wet sponges. There even were horse rides.
“The horses are a new thing, in light of our rustic setting,” said Smalley, referring to the venue change from Skyview High School, where Relay for Life has been held in recent years, to the sports center adjacent to the Soldotna rodeo grounds. “That’s really been a hot item. I don’t think that many people come in contact with horses these days, so there have been people of all sizes and ages on those horses.”
It was particularly nice to walk outside, while the weather cooperated, or move events indoors, as was the case with the survivors’ lap, Smalley said.
“That was a smashing success. It was warm, you didn’t have to weigh things down with rocks (from the wind), people could hear, they had time to visit, it was a sea of purple. It was just wonderful — wonderful, wonderful,” Smalley said.
Relay for Life is a national event. Event organizers network across the country, sharing tips, ideas and support.
For the central peninsula event, 33 teams and 377 participants raised $76,550. Donations still are accepted through Aug. 31 at relayforlifeofcentralpeninsula.org to the 2012 goal of $95,000.
And that’s the larger message of relay — whether it’s a local event or on the nationwide scale — no one facing cancer
does it alone. Rain or shine, diagnosis or remission, there are others out there also fighting for a cure.
“I relay because I can’t thank everybody who made it possible for me to be standing here today,” said Joey. “So I pay it forward by helping cancer research and drug research, and by fundraising. That’s why I relay.”