By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
On May 30 and 31, while most sane people took shelter indoors from the gusting winds strafing across the central Kenai Peninsula — strong enough to blow down the grandstand at the Peninsula Oilers baseball field and knock enough trees into power lines that it took a day to restore everyone’s electricity — a hardy, well-bundled crowd was willingly outside taking laps on the Kenai Central High School track.
And not for a quick 30 minutes of exercise, either, but for hours on end, all night and into the following day. What could motivate otherwise weather-savvy Alaskans to subject themselves to a particularly harsh example of Kenai wind?
Cancer. Specifically, the 17th annual Central Peninsula Relay for Life, held each year to raise money for the American Cancer Society and to support those affected by the disease.
Typically the event has a carnival flair — live music, food, games, contests and other fun. But thanks to the weather, the 2014 event at times more closely resembled the theme of this year’s Relay — “Finish the Fight” — as participants struggled through the blustery night, finally adjourning indoors earlier than planned Saturday morning and postponing the closing ceremony.
This year’s local Relay fundraising goal is $67,000 by Aug. 31. After Relay weekend the total sits at $53,927.11 — no rounding because, yes, every cent counts. There are a few more opportunities to meet the goal. One is a five-kilometer fun run/walk at Tsalteshi Trails’ Wolverine trailhead off Kalifornsky Beach Road at 6 p.m. Friday. Register (or donate to the cause, even if you’d rather not walk or run) at http://www.tsalteshi.org. And the New Beginnings Fitness Center’s Mud Run on June 21 also will raise money for Relay. Beyond specific events, donations can be made online at http://www.relayforlife.org/kenaiak, and at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. And the closing ceremony
intended for the end of the Relay event will now follow the fun run, at about 7 p.m. at the Wolverine trailhead at Tsalteshi, in order to properly recognize the Relay superstar fundraisers of the year — top individual fundraisers Michael Webber ($3,145), Joseph Yourkoski ($1,460) and Allison Gottesman ($1,010); and the top fundraising teams, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church ($7,127.49), Central Peninsula Hospital ($4,662) and Kenai DJJ and Friends ($3,068.37).
Truth be told, I wasn’t a huge fan of this year’s Relay theme, “Finish the Fight.” Not that I don’t support the eradication of cancer in whatever militaristic terminology one wants to employ — I absolutely do. And not that I am opposed to getting rowdy on occasion for something you believe in — that is also not a thing with which I have a problem.
But I used to think that the “fighting” concept created an expectation of those struck by cancer, one that I found a little challenging in the past.
Cancer, as we all know, does not discriminate. It can pick on the strong and the weak, young and old, those with means to mount a powerful counterassault and those without, and anyone in any demographic in between. And the experience of cancer can be as unique as the people who are struck by it. While some come out swinging, angry enough to spit nails and pummel cancer into remission, others react with a little less ferocity, or at least don’t maintain it — adrenaline, after all, being an inevitably depleting resource.
My closest relationship to cancer has been with my mother, and she could be the poster patient for the fight against cancer. For context, my mom is Irish Catholic. So when she was diagnosed, she had angry covered. Her Irish temper flared, while the Catholic kept her from actually slugging anything. More like a glare so steely it could only be matched by the force of her clenched jaw.
Cancer was stopping her from going to work. It was keeping her from tending to her garden. It was forcing her to miss church. Never mind the less-than-rosy treatment outlook and the discomfort, outright pain, impacts to quality of life and other costs to come. Cancer was messing with her schedule, and she was Not. Having. It. She had more fight than the entire script of “West Side Story.”
At first. But then came the chemo and radiation — multiple rounds, high doses, both treatments at the same time. Next came the 10-hour surgery, which was only supposed to take four or, at most, six. It lasted so long it took multiple full blood transfusions and a shift change of nurses halfway through. Then came the tediously slow, yearlong recovery process and the frustrating, years-longer adjustment to what has become her new normal.
And there were times when the fight went out of her. When she wasn’t as focused on destroying cancer with her bare hands. She was focused on sleeping without chills or hot flashes. On taking a shower on her own, without being so dizzy she couldn’t stand up. On eating a meal without having to taste it twice. On reading a book without losing recent pages in a chemo fog (though she still managed to maintain her unblemished “Jeopardy!” supremacy).
And she hated it. She hated feeling weak, tired and scared, but above all, she really hated showing it. “I’m fine,” she’d say, with a pallor akin to skim milk. “Just a little tired,” she’d insist, shaking from the exertion of trying to sit up.
Cancer, of course, is completely unfair. I’d look at her then and realize how even more unfair it was that on top of everything else she was maintaining through, she felt like she needed to maintain the fight, as well. On top of just breathing and resting and healing, she didn’t need the expectation of “being” any certain way. And it dawned on me, in those moments, that the fight against cancer wasn’t hers to bear.
That’s what I was there for. That’s what all of us are here for, who know someone facing cancer. Because as much as we want to, we can’t transfuse their pain. We can’t sign up for a day of their nausea. We can’t offer our arm to the needles or swallow their horse pills or sit in their place in the chemo chair.
But we can take on the fight for them. And that might not feel like much at times, compared to what they have to take, but it is no small thing. Cancer wants to fight to the death, but we have the nobler battle, because we get to fight for life. And in that fight, we have the distinct advantage.
Cancer really only has a few weapons at its disposal. It can mutate, it can capitalize on toxins and exploit a compromised immune system. But our arsenal is much deeper than that. We can fight in big ways — by raising money for research, lobbying for improvements in health policies and raising awareness for the cause. And we can fight in more personal ways — with homemade bread, back rubs, handmade quilts and volunteer lawn mowing, pet sitting and child care, by sharing stories, lending support and inspiring hope, and the million other ways we show that though they might be on the front lines of the battle, they aren’t in this fight alone.
More than just fundraising for the American Cancer Society, that is what Relay for Life is for. To demonstrate to our friends, loved ones, community members and anyone watching that we’re in this fight together. We walk to prove that no one is on this journey alone. We light luminaria at dusk to show that the light of hope and love and remembrance will never go out. We raise money to demonstrate that this is a community priority. We listen to music and dance and play games and stuff ourselves with pancakes to prove that we’re not in this fight to the death — we’re in it for life.
Just because we laugh doesn’t mean we don’t take the fight seriously. Just because we enjoy life doesn’t mean we’ve let down our guard. Just because we cry doesn’t mean we’ve resigned. And just because we rest does not mean we give up. It just means someone else is taking a turn in the ring. And we’ve got plenty of reinforcements happy for the privilege to take a swing at cancer.
For every one person cancer attacks, it picks a fight with 20 of us — or 50, or 100, or 1,000. Cancer doesn’t have that support system. Cancer has no backup. There’s no team for it to call on. There’s no one rooting for it to win. Whereas we fight with love, and that is powerful and limitless, guaranteeing that we will indeed finish the fight.
Jenny Neyman is editor of the Redoubt Reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.